High five: Boris is credited with making a difference in the marginals. Photo: WPA Pool/Getty
Show Hide image

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?

Getty
Show Hide image

Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.