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

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

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