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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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.