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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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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