Gordon Brown addresses activists Glasgow in March 2014 speech ahead of September's referendum on Scottish independence. Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: Gordon Brown to step down as an MP at the 2015 election

Plus: more news from inside the Palace of Shame.

Maggie’s old chancellor Nigel Lawson spends much of his time lounging in the south of France when he isn’t emitting hot air in London, denying the floods were linked to climate change. Fortuitously my spy was in the plush restaurant Roux, a short stroll from parliament, when Baron Lawson of Blaby, as he has grandly become, sauntered in. Lawson was a guest at a right-whinge soirée hosted by the chain-smoking Mark Littlewood, head of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a sort of free-market Taliban. Lord L ordered a glass of claret and revealed a striking disdain for a parliament in which he’s a member for life. Roux, Lawson opined grandly, was the best restaurant “within walking distance of the Palace of Shame”. Unelected lawmakers claiming £300 an appearance bring down the tone of the place, eh, Nige?

Gordon Brown, whispered one of his friends, is to step down as an MP at the 2015 general election. The announcement, when it comes, will be as unexpected as the Sun backing the Tories, but Brown’s departure will still excite headlines. The former PM will have clocked up 32 years in parliament, including three as prime minister and five since he left Downing Street. Thatcher and Major both quit as MPs at the next general election. Heath stayed for the longest sulk in history. I’ve come to the conclusion that Blair made the right call by disappearing immediately. Ex-premiers get in the way. Accused of back-seat driving if they utter a single word out of place in the Commons, they’re also called lazy if they avoid making speeches.

Esther McVey, Cameron’s ruthlessly ambitious pet Scouser, was disappointed to be passed over when Dave the Sexist put Sajid Javid, a male banker, into Maria Miller’s shoes. Newspapers regularly wrongly describe her as state-educated, the FT among the guilty. Javid was, although he sends his own kids to private schools. McVey was privately educated but her alma mater, Belvedere in Liverpool, joined the state sector as an academy long after she’d left. McVey is happy to leave the mistake uncorrected to give Cameron’s toffocracy a northern rough edge.

The next chair of the Labour Party, Ucatt’s follically challenged Jim Kennedy, who will sit in the hot seat during election year, is a dead ringer for the slaphead Harry Hill. Kennedy had difficulty persuading a couple in Cheltenham that he wasn’t the TV Burp presenter. When his profile rises as the Labour chair, I wonder if Hill will be mistaken for Kennedy? Perhaps not.

MPs are unhappy at the continued Disneyfication of the Palace of Shame (copyright Lord Lawson). Tour guides are doing fewer trips for constituents to show more ticket-buying tourists where Charles I was sentenced to death. One veteran MP, 20 years in harness, grumbled he’d have to buy an umbrella to hold aloft and chaperone voters himself, discovering for the first time parts of the building off his usual route: office to chamber to bar.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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