David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Could a Clegg-Farage debate be followed by a Cameron-Miliband debate?

The Tories could use a debate between the Lib Dem leader and his UKIP opposite to argue for the head-to-head contest they want between the two main leaders.

Nick Clegg's decision to challenge Nigel Farage to a head-to-head debate on the EU is the latest stage of his attempt to frame the Lib Dems as "the party of in" against UKIP, "the party of out". Europhilia might not be a popular stance in British politics but Clegg's calculation is that an unambiguously pro-European pitch will appeal to his party's target audience. He said on his LBC show this morning: "I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I will challenge Nigel Farage to a public, open debate about whether we should be in or out of the European Union. That’s the choice facing the British people.

"He is the leader of the party of OUT, I am the leader of the party of IN. It’s time for a proper public debate so that the public can listen to the arguments and decide for themselves."

Farage has responded by demanding that Cameron and Miliband are also included "in order that the British people can see all their main political leaders argue their positions". With that condition unlikely to be met (Cameron will never debate Farage), it is unclear whether he will take Clegg alone. We are told that Farage "will give a full response to this development on LBC tomorrow morning". 

But what of the main leaders' debates? The Lib Dems and Labour are ready to sign up for the "333" model: three debates between three leaders over three weeks. But the Tories, who blame the debates in party for their failure to win a majority in 2010, are stalling. Cameron has long complained that the debates "sucked the life" out of the campaign and is wary of committing to a repeat. 

But one option under discussion in Conservative circles, as I first reported last September, is a one-on-one debate between Cameron and Ed Miliband, ideally before the campaign begins. Aware that Cameron outpolls both his party and Miliband, the Tories have long intended to frame the election as a presidential contest ("do you want David Cameron or Ed Miliband as your prime minister?") and a debate would be the ideal way to amplify this impression. A one-on-one debate between Cameron and Miliband would also eliminate the need to specifically exclude Nigel Farage. Conservative whip Greg Hands gave the game away when he tweeted during the German leaders' debate: "Interesting that German TV debate only has the leaders of the two parties who could conceivably be the Chancellor. No FDP, Greens, etc". 

A Farage-Clegg debate could provide the Tories with the opening they need to argue explicitly for a Cameron-Miliband debate. As the europhile and the europhobe play in the corner, they can declare that it's time for the two men fighting to become prime minister to take each other on. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide