Nigel Farage during the Newark by-election count. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why the Tories have picked the wrong man to take on Farage

Rather than choosing a former Ukip leader as their candidate in South Thanet, the party should have selected a liberal figure capable of winning tactical votes. 

With a whimper, rather than a bang, Nigel Farage has confirmed that he is standing for selection as Ukip's candidate in South Thanet. After the local party secretary rather unhelpfully leaked the news to the FT last week, the announcement is tucked away at the bottom of his Independent column today. He writes: "Of course I think I stand a good chance of winning. I have fought the seat before and it is in my home county of Kent and an area I have represented in the European Parliament since 1999."

Farage finished fourth when he stood in the Tory-held seat in 2005, and only managed third place when he ran in John Bercow's Buckingham constituency in 2010, but he is right to believe he can improve on both of these performances. A recent Lord Ashcroft poll put Ukip in first place in South Thanet and the party won seven out of eight seats on the county council last May, leaving the Tories without a single representative. 

Aware that Farage was likely to stand in the constituency, the Tories acted pre-emptively by selecting former Ukip leader and deputy leader Craig Mackinlay as their PPC (sitting MP Laura Sandys is standing down). The logic is clear: by choosing a robust eurosceptic as their candidate, the Tories hope to prevent right-leaning voters from defecting to the purple army.  

But the strategy is a questionable one. To win the seat, where they currently hold a 7,617 majority, the Tories would have been wiser to select a liberal candidate capable of winning tactical votes from Labour and Lib Dem supporters. In the recent Newark by-election, a significant number of centre-left voters held their noses and voted Conservative on the grounds that it was the best means of stopping Farage's party. One compared it to backing Jacques Chirac against Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 French presidential election. Another said: "I've never voted Tory in my life, but I'm not having those bastards [Ukip] getting in". 

It may be that such voters are prepared to back Mackinlay. But it is worth remembering how poorly Tory candidate Maria Hutchings performed in the Eastleigh by-election after running on a Ukip-style platform. The lesson that Tory modernisers drew was that you can't out-Ukip Ukip (as Lord Ashcroft has repeatedly warned the party). But it is not one that seems have to been applied to South Thanet. With Labour also in contention for the seat, which it held between 1997 and 2005, it is Miliband's party that could benefit if the Tories fail to attract tactical votes. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder