No 10’s “barnacle-stripping” has failed to keep irreconcilable Tory tribes on message

Any communications strategy devised in Downing Street also has to compete with noisy agendas elsewhere in the party.

When prime ministers felt confident in their position they used to call elections after four years. Five is a schlep. Half-decade-old administrations look cornered, spent.

David Cameron has no choice. As a gesture of commitment to coalition in 2010, he surrendered the power of the snap ballot. It was an act of unilateral disarmament, decommissioning the element of surprise. Such generosity doesn’t save him from looking haggard by 2015.

As things stand, the Conservatives have two interlocking reasons to be glad there are another 16 months to go to the general election. They are behind in the polls and the economic recovery, legible on paper, isn’t yet palpable in voters’ pockets. Downing Street expects prosperity and Conservative popularity to grow together this year.

The obvious risks are that the economy doesn’t perform as hoped and that, even if it does, voters don’t go blue with gratitude. Another problem is inactivity as the party waits for the incoming tide to lift it off the electoral beach. The Conservatives have a simple message about what they claim to have done so far – rescuing Britain from Gordon Brown’s ruinous rule. They also have the crude outline of an offer for government after 2015 – more cuts, a European referendum, harsher immigration controls. That leaves a year of thumb-twiddling.

The hiatus is partly a function of a coalition endgame. The Lib Dems, afraid of looking supine, routinely boast of thwarting Tory plans. Cameron has played along, claiming to hoard policies in a “little black book” for when Nick Clegg is no longer leaning over his shoulder. Frustration has become a def­ining feature of Conservative identity.

The Tory agenda has also narrowed thanks to the barnacle-stripping fiat from Lynton Crosby. The Prime Minister’s election strategist advised Cameron to shed small policies that impede the flow of a campaign message through the airwaves. Crosby’s arrival had an immediate impact, with Tory MPs becoming notably more uniform and aggressive in their deployment of centrally dictated attack lines during 2013. But the edges are already fraying and not everyone is persuaded by the virtues of monomania.

It is a poorly kept secret that Andrew Cooper, the founder of the Populus opinion polling firm and until last year a strategist in Downing Street, has doubts about Crosby’s approach. He shares the concerns of moderate MPs that the Australian guru’s method doesn’t work for the specifically British challenge facing the Tories. Crosby tests an issue against two criteria: do voters think it matters a lot? Is it an area where Conservatives are judged to be strong? If the answer is a double “yes” – fiscal rigour, crime, immigration, welfare – the topic is primed with maximum campaigning energy. Otherwise, it is deemed a distraction.

The flaw is that not enough effort goes into messages that neutralise fear of unalloyed Conservative rule, which is the cultural hurdle the party has failed to clear in every general election of the 21st century. Ever tougher rhetoric on immigration doesn’t answer the question of whether the Tories can be trusted with the NHS. Ever deeper welfare cuts won’t dispel suspicion that the Conservatives are a party for the rich.

Message minimalism also denies the effects that low-impact issues can have in human­ising the Tories. For example, Crosby discouraged the recent drive to intervene against the tide of internet pornography. On that occasion he was overruled by Cameron. Although too many micro-initiatives clog up a prime minister’s agenda, there is a role for targeted interventions that connect his personal concerns with the anxieties of voters (in this case, parents freaking out at the ubiquity of digital grot).

Any communications strategy devised in Downing Street also has to compete with noisy agendas elsewhere in the party. Hard­line Eurosceptics are spraying out unrealistic proposals for Cameron’s putative renegotiation of British EU membership. Rural MPs seethe in expectation that their green and pleasant constituencies will be buried under concrete thanks to new planning rules. There are MPs lobbying for a hike in the minimum wage as an emblem of compassion for low-paid workers – an idea supported by Jo Johnson, head of the No 10 Policy Unit, but resisted by the Chancellor. There are MPs itching for tax cuts.

Differences have also emerged on the front benches. The Prime Minister, haunted by his televised promises to preserve rich pensioners’ benefits, guarantees them in perpetuity. George Osborne thinks that pledge expires next year. The Chancellor is also in a feud with Iain Duncan Smith, driven partly by Osborne’s constant raids on the benefits budget and partly by his undisguised belief that the Work and Pensions Secretary is a dolt. Meanwhile, Tory liberals say that Downing Street has no control over the anti-foreigner sirens that broadcast Theresa May’s leadership ambitions from the Home Office.

There is nothing unusual about parties containing rivalries and schisms. Labour is packed with them. What should worry the Conservatives is the apparent trajectory away from message coherence as the election nears. It suggests that Crosby’s skills as a disciplinarian are overrated or that some Tory divisions simply cannot be contained.

For most Conservatives, four years of coalition is enough. The party’s various tribes are impatient for change. The current project has run its course and they want to move on. That is the essential contradiction in the Tory message. The head talks about responsible government; the body language is in opposition.

David Cameron returns to Downing Street yesterday after Prime Minister's Questions. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 1914 to 2014

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Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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