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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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