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?

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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.