Natalie Bennett's gaffes give Labour hope. Photo: Getty
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Natalie Bennett, Labour's secret weapon?

Labour think that Natalie Bennett's poor TV performances will hand them victory. Funnily enough, that's what the Conservatives think about them.

Get Natalie Bennett on the telly! That’s not the cry coming from the Green party’s press office, but from senior Labour strategists.

They think that, away from the spotlight, the Greens’ unlikely leader is dangerous because “she’s whatever voters want her to be”, as one puts it.  “There are people voting Green because Ed is anti-immigration” one organiser explains to me, “But there are just as many because they think he’d ruin the economy”.

When people imagine Bennett, she is free of the so-called ’3 Es’ that organisers say stop people voting Labour – “expenses, the economy, and Ed Miliband” – she can’t claim expenses because she’s not an MP, she won’t ruin the economy because she won’t win, and she’s not Ed Miliband. “But when she’s interviewed, she is actually even worse than  Ed,” the same organiser says. “I think if Caroline [Lucas] was still leader, we would be in the absolute ****.”

Bennett, in contrast, lacks passion,  and added to her dubious highlights reel this morning with an uncertain performance on the Today programme, when she once again failed to explain how the citizens’ income would work and threw some easy headlines to the right-wing press after favouring a less than steely response to Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.

“Nicola [Sturgeon, leader of the SNP] is great and we wish she was on TV less,” an insider explains, “Leanne [Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru] is awful and is on TV a fair amount. Natalie Bennett is a joke but people don’t see enough of her.”

As Siraj Datoo writes this morning over at BuzzFeed, Labour will not attack the Greens directly – in fact,  staffers on the party’s anti-Green unit are at pains that it be described as anything but an “anti-Green unit” – but they’re perfectly happy for their left-wing rivals to be roughed up by other people.

That she can’t explain the basic income – an idea that has support from across the political spectrum, ranging from Philip Collins, a former Blair aide, in the centre, all the way out to Friedrich Hayek on the right – without sounding as if she’s been invited into the studio by accident strengthens that view.

It gives Labour two reasons to despair that it now looks highly unlikely that the TV debates will happen at all; firstly because it deprives that party of the opportunity to dispel perceptions that Ed Miliband is cut from an inferior cloth to David Cameron, but, perhaps more importantly considering the threat that the Greens play to Labour’s chances in the marginals, it will mean that voters see less of Natalie Bennett.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics. 

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.