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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Theresa May dodges difficult questions about social care and NHS in Andrew Neil interview

Prime Minister was on message but on the back foot.

Theresa May was interviewed for 30 minutes by Andrew Neil on BBC One this evening, and she managed to say next to nothing. Whether you see that as skilful politics or shameless dishonesty, there was very little that came out of this interview. Here’s the little we did learn:

The Prime Minister is assuming victory - even if she says otherwise

Although the Conservative party’s campaign has been based on trying to convince voters that there is a chance Jeremy Corbyn could be Prime Minister (to spook them into voting for May, and against a Corbyn-led coalition – a very unlikely scenario in reality), Theresa May revealed just how strongly her party is assuming victory. For example, when pressed on her plans for funding social care (means-testing the winter fuel allowance, and taxing the elderly on their assets), she could only answer that her government would hold a consultation to iron out the details. No matter how hard she tries to push the message that Corbyn is en route to No 10, if her policies are not policies at all but ideas to be fleshed out once she returns to power, this remains just rhetoric. As Neil asked about the consultations: “Wouldn’t you have done that before you came out with the policy?”

The Tories won’t lower themselves to costing their manifesto

It has always been the case that Labour has to work much harder than the Tories to prove its economic credibility, which is why in the Ed Miliband days it was decided that all policy proposals had to add up. But never have the Tories been so shameless in taking advantage of that political fact. For all the stick its received for being idealistic, Corbyn’s manifesto is more costed than the Tory effort, which May herself admitted during this interview is a set of “principles” rather than policies: “What we set out in our manifesto was a series of principles.” Where is the money going to come from for £8bn extra for the NHS? “Changing the way money is used”, “The strong and growing economy”, and “a variety of sources”, of course! At least Labour could patch together something about corporation tax and cracking down on tax avoidance if asked the same question.

Playing politics

Neil went in hard on May’s u-turn on her plan to fund social care – asking repeatedly why the Tories are now planning on bringing in a cap on how much the elderly have to pay, when originally there was no cap. All May could offer on this was that Corbyn was “playing politics” with the policy, and “scaremongering” about it. This deflection was flawed in a number of ways. First, it provided no explanation of what the policy will now be (what will the cap be? When will we know?), second, if Corbyn has been “scaremongering” it means he must have influenced the policy change, which May denies, and third, all it highlights is that May is herself “playing politics”.

Brexit is always the answer

As May cannot answer a single question about the specifics of policies or spending, Brexit is the perfect topic for her. It is a subject defined by its uncertainty and lack of detail, therefore something she can get on board with. She answered almost every question on every subject broached by Neil by asking who voters want around the Brexit negotiating table after the election – her or Corbyn.

Why are the polls closing? “...I’ve set out my vision for that strength in negotiations and that stronger plan. And the choice is who’s going to be doing those negotiations, me or Jeremy Corbyn.”

Are your policies uncosted? “...I think it is important that the country has certainty over the next five years, has the strong and stable leadership I think it needs, as I’ve just explained, particularly for those Brexit negotiations.”

Where is the extra NHS funding going to come from? “...Crucial to that, is getting the Brexit negotiations right, and that’s why this is so important. That’s why who is sitting around that negotiating table, 11 days after the election it’s going to start…”

Will National Insurance go up? “...Fundamental to that of course is getting the Brexit deal right and getting those negotiations right and having both a strong hand in those negotiations but also the strength of leadership in those negotiations…”

Will you break the immigration target promise for a third time? “...The question that people face is who do they trust to take this country though the Brexit negotiations..?”

But the soundbites must be working

A few seconds in to the interview, May had already used the phrase “strong and stable” and “my team”. While political insiders will groan and mock the repetitive use of such banal phrases, and emphasis on Brexit negotiations, we must remember the “long-term economic plan” slogan of 2015’s Tories. It worked, and clearly behind the scenes, the masterminds of the Conservative campaign believe these soundbites must be working. Theresa May is miles ahead of Jeremy Corbyn on the “who you trust to be Prime Minister” metric, which is why the Tories repeating how “strong and stable” their government would be, and running such a presidential campaign (“my team”, and May versus Corbyn) must be working.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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