Leader: The new mood of conservative triumphalism is at odds with reality

The coalition’s record remains one of failure, even on its own terms.

The opening years of this parliament provided few opportunities for the self-congratulation that comes so naturally to the present generation of Conservative politicians. The economy barely grew, the NHS was left in chaos by Andrew Lansley’s reforms and the coalition government’s promise of a “new politics” was tainted by repeated scandals.

But in recent weeks a mood of triumphalism has taken hold in the Parliamentary Conservative Party and among its press supporters. In the final Prime Minister’s Questions before the summer recess, David Cameron declared: “The deficit is down, unemployment is falling, crime is down, welfare is capped and Abu Qatada is back in Jordan. Every day this country is getting stronger and he [Ed Miliband] is getting weaker.”

And yet, by any reasonable measure, the coalition’s record remains one of failure, even on its own terms. The economic recovery of which ministers boast is the slowest in more than 100 years, with GDP nearly 4 per cent below its pre-recession peak. In the US, by contrast, where the Obama administration maintained fiscal stimulus, the economy is 3.2 per cent larger than in 2007 after growth four times greater than that of the UK. And rather than rebalancing the economy away from debt-driven consumption and towards investment and exports, as was promised and was desirable in 2010, George Osborne appears intent on creating another housing bubble through his Help to Buy scheme, which will reflate demand without addressing the problem of supply.

The headline fall in unemployment, which remains unacceptably high at 2.51 million (7.8 per cent), masks the sharp rise in so-called underemployment, with a record 1.45 million people in part-time jobs because they are unable to work full-time. To compound this, long-term unemployment has reached a 17-year high of 915,000 and youth unemployment is at 959,000 (20.9 per cent). That total joblessness has not risen to the heights experienced in the 1980s owes more to workers’ willingness to price themselves into employment (real wages have fallen by a remarkable 9 per cent) than the success of the government’s strategy. To voters enduring the greatest squeeze in living standards in recent history, ministers offer scapegoats – “welfare dependants”, “health tourists”, “troubled families”. In the meantime, Britain’s core problems, such as its economic short-termism, its lack of social mobility and its extreme income inequality, remain largely unaddressed.

As global competition intensifies, the UK needs a government that, as well as encouraging enterprise and enabling small businesses to flourish, will be prepared to use the state innovatively to promote balanced growth, that is capable of maintaining old international alliances and forging new ones, and that can revive a sense of national purpose of a kind that, for now, is largely absent.

David Cameron greets Olympic volunteers whilst on a visit to the former Olympic site on July 19, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

Photo: Getty
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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.