Undisguised rivalry. David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Source: Getty
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Leadership speculation harms the Tories but they can't help themselves

Conservative MPs' anguish flows from their knowledge that Cameron is both the best candidate and not good enough to deliver outright victory.

Some features of the political landscape are so banally unchanging that Westminster, with its addiction to volatility, chooses simply to ignore them. One such is the fact that David Cameron is by far the best candidate to lead the Tory party into the next election and will do so. The incumbent has many flaws. I wrote about at least one of them in the magazine this week. But there is no ready alternative. The majority of Tory MPs – and, when they are being candid, Labour MPs – can see that Cameron’s capabilities as a confident performer, offering the reassurance of continuity in difficult times, constitute the Tories' best chance of thwarting Ed Miliband.

It follows that those Conservatives who currently encourage talk of the succession have already decided that there is no way Cameron can win in 2015 or actively want him to fail. That is plainly true of a hard core of MPs – the fifth column, as Matthew Parris once described them – who relish the prospect of seeing the Prime Minister humiliated. By most accounts their number is no more than around 30.

More reasonable Tory MPs have learned to live with the fanaticism in their midst and wait in hope that proximity to the election will eventually impose discipline. There was, therefore, astonishment at the appearance of stories in the Times and the Mail on Sunday in the past week stoking speculation about Boris Johnson’s return to parliament. It was reported that Downing Street wanted the London Mayor to get involved in the general election campaign and bind himself in institutional loyalty to the Cameron project before polling day by standing as an MP. This has been widely interpreted as a gambit by the Chancellor to flush out Boris’s intentions and force his hand, thereby destabilising whatever strategy he might have to position himself as a White Knight saviour of the Tories after a 2015 defeat. Boris was said to be enraged.

Of course, the net outcome of all of this is that collectively the Tories look a little bit less familiar with the distinction between arse and elbow. News stories predicated on top Tories calculating the probability of defeat makes defeat more probable. Seen from the point of view of the rank and file, loyal but mostly anonymous MPs – the ones who just want to get on with trying to govern effectively and taking the fight to Labour – all of this briefing and counter-briefing is self-indulgent and self-destructive. It’s bad enough when maverick rebels on the back benches rock the boat. Seeing it rocked from the centre is thoroughly depressing.

And yet the speculation won’t quite go away because most Tories have done the maths and worked out that, in all likelihood, a Commons majority is beyond their reach. They might pin Labour back as the economy recovers. Ukip might shrivel after the European elections. But even in the most auspicious circumstances it is hard to see Cameron’s share of the vote soaring to the 40-plus mark at which point control of parliament becomes a realistic prospect. And if the limit to Conservative ambition is being the biggest party in a hung parliament, there is also a natural ceiling on loyalty to the leader – even when he is the best one available. This is the underlying cause of all Tory anguish . They know it doesn’t get better without Cameron and they know that with Cameron it isn’t good enough.

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

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Trident is dangerous – and not for the reasons you think

Fixating on Trident is like replacing the guest bathroom while your own toilet flush doesn't work. 

Backing Trident is supposed to make a politician look hard, realistic and committed to Britain’s long history of military defence.That’s why the Tories delighted in holding a debate on renewing the nuclear weapons system in June 2016.

But it was the Tory Prime Minister who floundered this weekend, after it emerged that three weeks before that debate, an unarmed Trident missile misfired - and veered off towards the United States instead of Africa. Downing Street confirmed May knew about the error before the parliamentary debate. 

Trident critics have mobilised. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, called the revelation “serious”. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longstanding opponent of nuclear weapons, said the error was “pretty catastrophic”. 

The idea of a rogue nuclear missile heading for the White House may have fuelled the disarmament movement. But even if you enjoy the game of nuclear poker, fixating on Trident is dangerous. Because while MPs rehearse the same old Cold War arguments, the rest of the world has moved on. 

Every hour debating Trident is an hour not spent debating cyber warfare. As Peter Pomerantsev prophetically wrote in April 2015, Russian military theory has in recent years assumed that it would not be possible to match the West militarily, but wars can be won in the “psychosphere”, through misinformation.

Since the Russian cyber attacks during the US election, few can doubt this strategy is paying off - and that our defence systems have a long way to catch up. As shadow Defence secretary, Emily Thornberry described this as “the crucial test” of the 21st century. The government has pledged £1.9bn in cyber security defences over the next five years, but will that be enough? Nerds in a back room are not as thrilling as nuclear submarines, but how they are deployed matters too.

Secondly, there is the cost. Even if you back the idea of a nuclear deterrent, renewing Trident is a bit like replacing the guest bathroom when the regular loo is hardly flushing. A 2015 Centreforum paper described it as “gold-plated” - if your idea of gold-plated is the ability to blow up “a minimum of eight cities”. There is a gory but necessary debate to be had about alternatives which could free up more money to be spent on conventional forces. 

Finally, a nuclear deterrent is only credible if you intend to use it. For this reason, the British government needs to focus on protecting the infrastructure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, now under threat from a US President who declared it “obsolete”. Eastern Europe has been nervous about the bear on its borders for some time - the number of Poles joining the country’s 120 paramilitary organisations has tripled in two years.  

Simply attacking Trident on safety grounds will only get you so far - after all, the argument behind renewing Trident is that the status quo will not do. Furthermore, for all the furore over a misfired Trident missile, it’s hard to imagine that should the hour come, the biggest worry for the crew of a nuclear submarine will be the small chance of a missile going in the wrong direction. That would be missing the rather higher chance of global nuclear apocalypse.

Anti-Trident MPs will make the most of May's current embarrassment. But if they can build bridges with the more hawkish members of the opposition, and criticise the government's defence policy on its own terms, they will find plenty more ammunition. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.