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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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times