Lord Ashcroft and Andrew Cooper call on Tories to publish private marginals poll

After a Tory strategist claimed a private poll put them two points ahead of Labour in marginal seats, the party comes under pressure to release its findings.

When I reported yesterday on Tory claims that a rerun of Lord Ashcroft's marginals poll (with the sitting MPs named) put them two points ahead of Labour (rather than 14 points behind), I wrote that the good Lord would be "watching closely". As anticipated, Ashcroft has now intervened, accusing the Tories, in a withering piece on ConservativeHome, of resorting to "comfort polling". 

In the original article, by the Telegraph's Dan Hodges, a "Tory analyst" was quoted as saying: "We reran it in the seats we hold but included the name of the sitting MP. We were ahead by 2 per cent." The existence of an "incumbency effect" (which naming the existing MP would encourage) is not disputed. In 2010, both Tory and Labour incumbents performed disproportionately well. Labour's vote fell by 5.2 per cent in those seats where the incumbent stood again, compared to 7.4 per cent elsewhere, while the Tories' rose by 4.1 per cent in incumbent seats, compared to 2.9 per cent elsewhere.

But as I pointed out, this leaves some important questions unanswered. Were other candidates named? (Voters may well prefer an individual to an amorphous party.) How were the questions worded? ("Will you vote for your hard-working local MP Matthew Hancock rather than the 'welfare party'?") What was the sample size? What was the weighting? 

These concerns are also raised by Ashcroft, who writes: "As worrying is the idea that the private poll 'included the name of the sitting MP' but – by implication, and of necessity since not all candidates will have been selected – nobody else. It would not be surprising if this skewed the result considerably in favour of the incumbent. Did the party really spend money on a such a flawed survey?

"Even if they did, it sounds unlikely that you could transform a double-digit deficit to a two-point lead simply by naming the MP. Which makes one wonder about other aspects of the poll. Which seats was it conducted in? What was the sample size? How was it weighted? How were the questions worded? With most polls, including mine, all this information is published. Where it is not, it is worth taking any reported results with more than a pinch of salt." He also asked, "why haven't the results been published per the pollsters code". 

As Ashcroft notes, off-the-record briefings on private polling should always be treated with scepticism. With this in mind, I've written to the British Polling Council asking whether the poll should now be published in accordance with its disclosure rules. As the BPC states, "In the event that the results of a privately commissioned poll are made public by a third party (i.e. external to the organisation that commissioned the survey, its employees and its agents — for example the leak of embargoed research) the survey organisation must place information on its website within two working days in order to place the information that has been released into proper context."

Andrew Cooper, David Cameron's former director of strategy and the founder of Populus (and co-founder of the BPC), has argued on Twitter that the poll should be released (if it exists at all).

The outcome is likely to depend on whether the pollster in question is a member of the BPC. Since surveys must be released "within two working days", I should get an answer shortly. 

Lord Ashcroft at the Conservative conference in Birmingham last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder