High five: Boris is credited with making a difference in the marginals. Photo: WPA Pool/Getty
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Tory MPs remain very confident. Are they seeing things that are hidden from the pollsters?

Is the optimism from Conversative MPs collective delusion, or do they know something we don't? Simon Heffer probes the factors hidden from the polls.

Last Sunday in Scarborough Ann Widdecombe fielded questions from a discerning literary festival audience. Given the uncertainties of the election it takes a brave person to predict the outcome. Miss Widdecombe is such a person. She told the audience, straight out, that the Conservatives would form a majority administration, albeit only just.

That day the New Statesman’s May2015 website published detailed analysis of why the Tories won’t get a majority and, indeed, why they will be consigned to opposition. The anti-Tory majority will, the analysis said, be too big.

Yet Miss Widdecombe is not alone. Tories around England feel degrees of optimism, but optimism nonetheless. Either this is a collective delusion (and such things happen during elections) or the Tories are genuinely seeing things that are hidden from the pollsters. The only complaint from Tory candidates is that the election is too “presidential”. “I wish we could see more of the team on television,” one of them said to me, “because we aren’t a one-man band.”

Even though he grates on much of the public, David Cameron is an adept public performer. His followers certainly believe that he comes across better than Ed Miliband, a point the polls bear out. “I just wish he had more passion,” another candidate complained. “He’s reapplying for his job. He needs to show he’s really passionate about getting it, and about what he wants to do with it.”

Instead, there has been chillaxing to the point of complacency. Lynton Crosby, the imported Australian pollster, is credited with playing Cameron directly against Miliband to make the latter look bad: it’s not clear whether Crosby has advocated the understated style, or whether Cameron can’t help it. Two factors feed complacency: a drift back of apostate Tories from Ukip, and a clamour on the doorstep against an England run by permission of a Scottish National Party that wants to leave the Union.

However, there are no signs of the panic that David Axelrod, Miliband’s own imported pollster, has claimed is now rampant in the Tory party. Many candidates are as much at ease as their leader affects to be. “It’s the nicest election I’ve ever fought,” says one, a veteran of half a dozen. “People feel the country has been considerably improved since 2010. And they would like to keep the devil they know, not risk Sturgeon and Salmond calling the tune.”

Incumbency seems important, with candidates who were in the Commons seeming supremely confident that they will return. “The surest way to get elected,” one MP said, only half joking, “is to have been elected in 2010.” There are exceptions: a strategist admitted that where seats are isolated in a “sea of red” (he mentioned Esther McVey in the Wirral) the party has “a hell of a fight”.

The question of an SNP-backed Labour government is coming up “unprompted”, a cabinet minister said. The Tories remain a unionist party – even if some would like to see the end of the Union to ensure Tory government in England – and demonising the SNP seems an effective way to scare people into not voting Labour. One minister talked of the SNP making Miliband into a “Frankenstein PM”, allowed to jolt into activity “only when Sturgeon chooses to turn on the electricity supply”. “It’s an effective argument in the north,” noted another, “where people have disproportionately borne the brunt of the welfare cuts. The idea that even under Labour public services won’t improve because of money being sent to Scotland doesn’t go down well.”

Other factors sustain the Tories. A minister claimed that “the tectonic plates have moved. People know that if you want an EU referendum you will certainly get one by voting Tory.” And it is thought that ex-Labour voters Ukip has attracted are sticking to their new party, not least because of its immigration message. But the biggest boost has been what one candidate called the “evaporation” of the Lib Dem vote. “We are hoping for a clean sweep of Cornwall, to get Nick Harvey out of North Devon, to take Torbay and to win Taunton,” said a West Country candidate. So few Tories want another coalition – some would rather watch Labour and the SNP aggrieve the English and await victory next time – that they hardly mind their ex-partners being slaughtered. “It’s also looking good in the Lib Dem seats in the south-east, even in London, where otherwise things aren’t good,” one said. The London problem is that “half of Labour’s membership is there, and we have been useless at getting the ethnic vote”. Predictions that the mansion tax would erode Labour’s support in London, or that the supposed success of Boris Johnson would rub off, have not, so far, proved accurate.

Talk of Johnson raises questions about his role. “Boris has been making a big difference in marginals,” a strategist claimed. “You’ll be seeing a lot more of him.” There are also plans to wheel out “the team”. Liz Truss, the Secretary of State at Defra, is felt to appeal to women, and Iain Duncan Smith is to be deployed to attract disaffected core voters. “Iain can say, ‘Look, we’ve all had to put up with things we didn’t much like, but it’s worked, and we deserve support.’”

Candidates know the campaign must be “turbocharged”, not least because of its length, with punters bored and the players exhausted. “There was a calculation that Miliband would bog it,” one observed. “He hasn’t – yet – so we must think again.” And despite the obstacles to a pro-Tory majority, a minister invited comparison not with 1992, but with the recent Netanyahu victory in Israel, which polls had discounted.

That victory happened only by Netanyahu warning of Arabs taking over Israel. Will Cameron warn of the Scots doing the same to England?

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation