Cameron's Ctrl-Alt-Del on frozen party relations

A bunch of new appointments and a more aggressive tone indicate that the Tories' campaign for re-election has already started.

Are the Tories getting their act together? In my column for this week’s magazine I note that there is a strain of optimism surfacing in the Conservative parliamentary party. It has a number of elements. There is new solidarity forged in collective mourning for Margaret Thatcher. Labour look disoriented and increasingly divided. And, crucially, there are portions of red meat being doled out by Lynton Crosby, the pugnacious No 10 campaign chief, to keep backbench tummies from rumbling angrily.

David Cameron, it seems, has also finally taken to heart the accusation that he neglects his party, choosing to float presidentially above the fray, thinking a bit too much about statesmanlike preening and not enough about securing a Conservative victory. Tory rebellion this parliament has often had an ideological impetus but it has also been exacerbated and prolonged by personal animosity towards the Prime Minister. There are MPs who feel slighted, passed over, sneered at and generally unloved. Cameron can’t do much about the hard core of ultra-zealous dogmatists who pray for his defeat – the Tory Trots – but there aren’t enough of those to finish him. He can, meanwhile, launch a charm offensive with the rest of the party.

Much has been made of his collegiate behaviour in the weeks of Thatcher mourning – sending friendly notes to MPs, raising a glass in tribute in the Commons bars; taking tea with the troops. Tory parliamentary flesh is being systematically pressed by the leader for the first time many can remember.

There have also been notable appointments. Before the Easter break, John Hayes, a bumptious Tory traditionalist with a direct channel to some of the ruddier-cheeked corners of the parliamentary party, was moved from the Energy department (where his scepticism about climate change was causing mayhem) to become a “senior” Cameron aide.

Now Jo Johnson (Boris’s younger brother) has been named as the new head of the No 10 policy unit. Johnson is respected across Westminster for his moderation and intelligence. He doesn’t have the flamboyance of his elder brother but that doesn’t mean he is any less ambitious. One credential that has raised a few eyebrows is the widespread suspicion that Johnson is a bit of a Europhile. That, in the words of one (more explicitly “out”) pro-European Tory is “the love that dare not speak its name” in the party, so it is hardly surprising that Johnson’s pragmatic inclinations towards Brussels are not worn on his sleeve. His private views are described to me as “eminently sensible; he gets it” by someone in Westminster whose approval would be considered a mark of disgrace by serious Tory eurosceptics. That could cause problems down the line.

Separately, a new policy “advisory board” has also been created, with input from a diverse range of MPs including veterans and 2010 newbies: Peter Lilley, Nick Gibb, Jesse Norman, Margot James, Peter Uppal, George Eustice. There are reports that Steve Hilton, Cameron’s old head of strategy will be involved – although that makes the whole thing look as much like a ruse to get people talking about a grand gathering of the Tory tribe as a substantial new institution. Hilton is not one for sitting comfortably on committees of any kind; Cameron is not really one for listening to them.

Of the MPs brought in to advise the PM, perhaps Norman is the most remarkable. He co-ordinated last year’s rebellion against House of Lords reform, for which he was rewarded with a ferocious bollocking from the Prime Minister and exile to political Siberia (“the new honourable member for Vladivostok East,” as one of Norman’s friends joked at the time.) Norman had once been considered a rising star and a shoo-in for a government post. After the Lords reform episode a No 10 insider told me that “Jesse Norman will never get a job in government under David Cameron.” That the ban looks to have been lifted is evidence that what we are seeing is a very deliberate, thorough effort to reset the leader’s relations with his party.

Will it work? We have been here before, notably after Cameron’s big European speech, when the Tories looked gleefully united for all of a week before talk of a leadership coup emerged. Nonetheless, this feels slightly different. There is a clearer and more explicit recognition among MPs that party discipline, coupled with a hint of good economic news, would put more pressure on Labour at a time when the opposition’s unity looks more brittle than ever. Again, Crosby’s influence here is crucial. A perennial criticism of the Cameron operation has been that it is not party political enough; that it likes the trappings of power but lacks a ferocious appetite for blood.

George Osborne has a relentless political game-playing impulse but he has a day job trying to run the economy. What has been missing, say some Tories, is the feeling that there is someone inside No 10 who wakes up every morning thinking about nothing other than how to hurt Ed Miliband and deliver a Conservative majority. That person, they now say, is Lynton Crosby. What he has done, in effect, is set the party on a war footing with suitably aggressive messages, triggering a Tory loyalty reflex. More than one Conservative has said to me in recent weeks “the campaign has started already.” They don’t mean the vote for county council seats on 2 May. They mean the big one in May 2015.

David Cameron tweeted this picture earlier of his new policy board, including Conservative MPs Jo Johnson, Jesse Norman and Margot James.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.