Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham at Labour's manifesto launch. Photograph: Getty Images.
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To win, the next Labour leader needs to master the fundamentals

Miliband's successor should focus on overturning the Tories' advantage on leadership and the economy. 

It was meant to be different this time. From its defeat in 2010 until the moment the polls closed on election day, Labour believed that it could “short-circuit” history by returning to government after a single term in opposition. But, as in 1955 and 1983, a bad election result has been followed by a worse one. It is David Cameron, not Ed Miliband, who has defied historic precedent. The Prime Minister is the first incumbent since Lord Salisbury in 1900 to increase his party’s vote share after serving a full term in office. Throughout its campaign Labour repeated the assertion that the Conservatives could not win a majority. They did.

Labour had relinquished hope of becoming the single largest party before election day – its private polls consistently showed it performing worse than those publicly available (just as the Tories’ showed them exceeding expectations). But it clung to the hope that it could enter power by virtue of Miliband being the only leader capable of commanding the confidence of the ­Commons. Three days before the election, Labour aides briefed me and other journalists on the finer details of the Cabinet Manual. One source spoke of how some in Labour had became “experts” in Ramsay MacDonald’s 1924 administration: the last time a second-placed party took office.

When the BBC’s exit poll was published at 10pm on 7 May, Miliband was at his constituency home in Doncaster with Bob Roberts, his director of communications, and Stewart Wood, his intellectual consigliere. He reacted with incredulity to its projection of 316 seats for the Tories and 239 for Labour, crying aloud that it must be wrong. Back at the party’s London HQ in Brewer’s Green, Charlie Falconer, who was overseeing preparations for government, sought to assuage distraught staffers with a rousing speech, assuring them that exit polls had been mistaken before. Labour’s spin operation was instructed to rubbish the numbers to journalists. “We are sceptical of the BBC poll. It looks wrong to us,” a text message read.

But none of the early results contradicted the forecast and the mood turned to despair when Nuneaton, a key Labour-Tory marginal, declared at 1.51am. Far from showing a swing towards the opposition, it showed a swing towards the Conservatives. At this point, concluding that the game was up, ­Labour staffers took solace in drink. “Every­one got hammered,” a source said. The talk at HQ turned to Miliband’s now inevitable resignation. By 2.34am, after a silence of more than two hours, the party’s spin team all but conceded defeat, warning that “the next government will have a huge task uniting the country”. Miliband’s speechwriter and university friend Marc Stears drafted a resignation address, which no one had prepared before that point. After travelling from Yorkshire to London, Miliband announced his departure to tearful staff at 9.45am on Friday, drawing on Ted Kennedy’s oration at the 1980 Democratic National Convention (“The dream shall never die”). At 12.12pm, he delivered a near-identical speech to journalists at One Great George Street in Westminster, and closed the curtain on his five-year leadership of the party.

Labour now finds itself in the foreign land of a Conservative majority – an outcome that few ever contemplated. But there were some prescient MPs. During the last and greatest crisis of Miliband’s leadership, last November, several predicted a Tory majority to me. When I reminded one of this, he replied: “I did put some money on it, so I can give my party a slap-up dinner.”

Many believed that Labour would always struggle to win if it trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin on both leadership and economic management (a position from which no opposition has ever won). From this perspective, the election was lost long ago. The Tories’ warnings of a Labour-SNP alliance helped to lure previously resistant Ukip and Liberal Democrat supporters into their camp. But it only proved so lethal because it preyed on existing doubts about the party. The framing of Miliband as the puppet of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon reinforced the impression of him as weak. The cry that a Labour-SNP partnership would lead to higher taxes and higher borrowing confirmed the view of the opposition as fiscally reckless. To win again now, the party needs to master what Tory strategists referred to as “the fundamentals”: strong leadership and economic credibility. This is less a matter of being more left-wing or more right-wing than one of simply being better.

But the heterogeneous character of the party’s defeat precludes easy definition. It lost votes to different groups in different regions for different reasons. Anti-­austerity Scots, anti-immigration northerners and fiscally conservative southerners all turned against Labour. It is hard to appease one group without simultaneously alienating another. MPs are able to cite whichever results suit their ideological predilection. The anti-austerity and anti-Trident left points to the calamity in Scotland. The anti-immigration and Eurosceptic right warns of a similar fate in the north (where Ukip finished second in 19 seats). The Blair-type reformists cite the south (where the party lost seats to the Tories) and appeal for fiscal restraint and an embrace of enterprise.

There is no cost-free approach. The task for Labour is to resolve which is the least costly. It is the modernising leadership contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall and Tristram Hunt – who have moved fastest to define the defeat (one rival campaign told me they were behaving like “family members taking jewellery off a corpse”). They recognise that the decisive nature of the loss aids their cause. No one can argue that with “one more heave” Labour could have got over the line. Even without the loss of 39 of its 40 Scottish seats, it would have finished 60 behind the Conservatives.

Few believe that the party can transform its performance north of the border, where the shift towards the SNP is structural rather than merely cyclical, in a single parliament. Many agree, as a shadow cabinet minister puts it, that “the route to power lies through Middle England”. It is here, as in 1992, that the election was lost. To win, Labour will need to make large gains from the Tories. Umunna’s decision to launch his campaign in Swindon, a Conservative-held seat, was symbolic of his focus on this task. His supporters regard Miliband’s limited effort to win over Tories as one of his biggest strategic failures. As an aide is said to have remarked on election night: “Who are these people who vote Tory? I’ve never met any of them.”

Unlike in 1994, when there was only one possible victor in the leadership contest (Tony Blair), and unlike in 2010, when there were two (the Miliband brothers), there are several serious contenders. Andy Burnham, who has polled consistently as members’ favourite shadow cabinet minister, and who delivered the best-received speech at last year’s conference, should not be underestimated. Under Labour’s preferential voting system, the winner – as in 2010 – will be the candidate best able to appeal across factions.

Whoever triumphs faces a task even more daunting than that of Miliband in 2010. Labour needs 94 gains to achieve a majority, a feat that only the Liberals in 1906 and Labour in 1945 have achieved from a starting position so weak. To add to this arithmetical Everest, the Tories will use their new-found majority to pass the constituency boundary changes previously vetoed by the Lib Dems, increasing their standing by at least 20 seats. At the next election, whether in 2020 or earlier, Labour will also have to contend with a new Conservative leader who may revive the party’s support just at the moment it is flagging (as John Major did in 1990).

But MPs are consoling themselves with the thought that if a week is a long time in politics, five years is an eternity. Just months after their victory in 1992, the Tories’ economic reputation was eviscerated by Black Wednesday. The scale of spending cuts, the risk of a housing or banking crash and possible EU withdrawal all make it impossible to rule out a similarly epochal event. If, as in 1994, Labour elects a leader with wide-ranging appeal, it may be able to achieve a majority. The lesson of this election, which almost all called wrong, is never to dismiss what is thought impossible.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

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 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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