David Cameron during his visit to the headquarters of ventilation manufacturer, Vent-Axia on January 23, 2014 in Crawley. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Maria Miller’s belated resignation shows that Cameron is a slow reader of the public mood

The Prime Minister radiates the Westminster elitism of which Farage offers himself as the scourge.

How can I be off message?” John Major once complained when his advisers said he had deviated from the party line. “I am the message!” The same thought must race through David Cameron’s mind whenever his party erupts in discontent with his performance. The Conservatives’ campaign in the next general election has two elements: reassurance that the economy is on the right track and fear of a derailment if Ed Miliband were put in charge. The message is safety in continuity, framed as a test of which party leader looks more plausible as prime minister. The message is Cameron.

Opposition strategists concede that the Conservatives’ strongest asset is their leader. In opinion polls, he trounces Miliband in measures of personal authority and trust to run the economy, although his party is behind Labour. The opposition also enjoyed a lead in 1992, right up until polling day, when Major crushed Neil Kinnock. This is the precedent – a late surge against an unconvincing opponent – that gives Cameron hope of hanging on in Downing Street.

A large obstacle to fulfilment of that dream is indiscipline in the Conservative ranks, fuelled by panic over Ukip. A reason why many Tories thirsted for sacrificial blood in the battle over Maria Miller’s expenses is the knowledge that Downing Street’s bungled defence of the culture secretary made it too easy for Nigel Farage to decry a corrupt establishment stitch-up.

No 10 invited Miller’s assassins in the press and parliament to desist but failed to erect a bulletproof shield around her. Her resignation exposed Cameron as a slow reader of the mood in his party and the country. That detachment is just one of the reasons why comparisons with 1992 are redundant. Central to the Tory message in that election was the ordinariness of Major’s background. He was the working-class boy from Brixton whose attainment of high office could never be belittled as the ornament of a gilded class. Cameron’s irremediable poshness isn’t just a problem when trying to woo Labour voters. It alienates ex-Tories who are switching to Ukip. The Prime Minister radiates the Westminster elitism of which Farage offers himself as the scourge.

The plan devised by Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s campaign strategist, for closing down the Ukip threat involves reminding people that voting for it risks admitting Miliband to No 10 by accident. Tory MPs who have been testing that line in their constituencies report mixed results at best. “We don’t care. We just want to hurt you,” is how one backbencher summarises the response on the doorstep. Even Conservative optimists say they do not expect to make any progress against Ukip until after May’s European Parliament elections. Many have written off that poll and have resorted to pleading with constituents to “split the ticket” – backing the Tories in local elections on the same day. Get this Ukip thing off your chest in the MEP ballot, is the whisper: just please reconsider Cameron in time for a general election.

One way the Prime Minister hopes to compensate for the limitations of his personal appeal is by assembling a cabinet that looks less exclusive than he does. In parliament, Labour MPs tease the government front bench as a parade of male millionaires. Downing Street dismisses the tactic as petty but the barb stings. A wide-ranging government reshuffle is likely in June and Cameron – counselled by George Osborne – is expected to use the opportunity to “refresh” his team. That usually means elevating MPs who confound the Tory ministerial stereotype of a chap in pinstripes. Young women with regional accents and comprehensive schooling are preferred.

Undermining the presentational advantages of such a reshuffle are the grievances it generates among those passed over. The joke among Tory MPs is that the only way to get promoted in Cameron’s regime is to be an Old Etonian, female or Matt Hancock (the skills minister is a favourite of the Chancellor). It is widely suspected that Cameron’s reluctance to surrender Miller owed much to her precious status as one of the few women in the cabinet.

Over the past year, the Prime Minister has tried to repair relations with his parliamentary party. He has made special overtures to right-wingers, hoping that they might be prevailed upon to issue the warning not to dabble with Ukip for fear of abetting Miliband. That, it is hoped, will sound more persuasive coming from MPs who share many views with Farage.

Such a strategy doesn’t address the despondency of moderate Tories whose problem with Cameron is not ideological. They are annoyed about what one former minister calls “pay and rations” – the feeling among middle-aged male MPs that more lucrative careers were available outside parliament and that their talents are ignored in a regime of positive discrimination that favours candidates with cosmetic appeal. They hate the way troublemakers are rewarded with policy concessions, while obedient supporters are neglected.

These rumblings are not the stuff of rebellion. They contain no eagerness for a change of leadership before the election. Yet, while most Tory MPs accept that Cameron is their best bet for 2015, their conversation still turns to questions about the succession: what will Boris Johnson do? Would Osborne climb free from the wreckage of an election defeat? Is anyone from the 2010 parliamentary intake ready for the top job? Partly that is because the electoral arithmetic makes victory so uncertain but it also describes a deeper malaise. Even many loyal Tories struggle to embrace David Cameron as the message because he keeps sending the message that he doesn’t want to embrace them.

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

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.