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Cameron fantasises about the next big push while the troops struggle

The further down the Conservative Party hierarchy you go, the more despondency you find.

The annual party conference season reveals so much about politics and so little. The paradox has a simple explanation. When assembled in one place, the tribe is available for closer, sustained observation. Yet a tiny proportion of voters are members of political parties, so the spectacle feels more like a holiday from the electorate than anything very relevant to it. There is always something to be learned from these gatherings but it is not usually the message that party leaders advertise. What was it this year?

Lib Dems miss the moral high ground
While the junior coalition party was meeting in Brighton, tales of Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative Chief Whip, allegedly calling a police officer a “fucking pleb” dominated the headlines. Many Lib Dems didn’t seem to mind their demotion down the news agenda and revelled in the Tories’ discomfort. Ministers made “pleb” jokes in their speeches. “I’m a pleb” badges became a must-have conference accessory.

Lib Dems cherish outbreaks of Tory nastiness, hoping their own status as agents of niceness in the government will be bolstered. Yet, by the end of the week, senior party figures were worrying that anti-Tory glee was getting out of control. Their concern is that promoting the idea of Tories as irredeemably unpleasant sours coalition relations and makes it harder to explain why the Lib Dems are in the coalition at all.

Nick Clegg’s strategists talk about “resilience” as the quality that voters will come to admire in the party. They are banking on the emergence of “grudging respect” for a leader who has endured multiple humiliations but not wavered in his determination to govern. Opinion polls don’t show much sign of that happening.

The party is “battle-weary”, in the words of one senior adviser. “[Lib Dems] long to feel good about themselves again.” The leadership thinks that self-respect can be acquired through dogged determination to carry on governing. The absence of any rebellion against Clegg suggests that the party is willing to give it a go for a while longer. Still, Lib Dem delight in watching Tories squirm suggests the lure of righteous opposition anger is getting stronger.

Ed Miliband really is the Labour leader
Ed Miliband delivered his big speech in Manchester with a thespian fluency of which many had previously thought him incapable. It was rapturously received in the hall and kindly reviewed elsewhere. It gave delegates hope that they might be able actively to promote the idea of the Labour leader as a potential prime min­ister, instead of dodging accusations that he doesn’t fit the part.

A notable enthusiast was Ed Balls, who told a fringe meeting that it was the finest speech he had heard from a Labour leader in 20 years. That hyperbole says more about the shadow chancellor’s need to show loyalty than it does about recent standards of political oration.

A persistent topic of speculation among Labour MPs is whether Miliband should move Balls from the Treasury brief. If the leader wants to look strong, while also signalling a break from the past, the obvious device – so the anti-Balls lobby surmises – is to despatch Gordon Brown’s former right-hand man. Such folly, says the pro-Balls camp, would put Lab­our’s economic policy in disarray and disinter old enmities that Miliband’s team boasts of having buried.

There is no evidence that Miliband plans to carry out such a manoeuvre before the election but the chatter has reached sufficient volume
to provoke new collegiality in Balls. “He’s not like Gordon,” says one former critic of the shadow chancellor on the front bench. “He knows what the negative views are and will do whatever it takes to change them.”

That all means that Miliband is enjoying his highest level of job security since winning the leadership in 2010. The sceptics in his party are not entirely won over. They acknowledge that he has proved himself capable of raising his game; they await proof he can keep it raised.

Morale is low on the Conservative front lines
The impatience of many Tory MPs for more Euroscepticism and harsher measures on crime, welfare and immigration from their leader is well known. What should alarm the Prime Minister is how little thanks he gets when he accedes to those demands, as inevitably he does.

Such ingratitude is part of a cycle that began when David Cameron failed to win a majority in 2010 and that systematically erodes his authority. He based his appeal to the country on a claim not to be a typical Tory and to be remaking the party in his image. Since that approach is deemed to have failed and the Prime Minister’s popularity is falling, the party has decided to try the formula the other way around – to insist that it is Cameron who must constantly change.

There were no violent eruptions of disloyalty during the Conservative party conference in Birmingham because backbench MPs sense they are winning their tug of war with Downing Street – but the further down the party hierarchy you go, the more despondency you find. Local councillors talk in bleak terms about the cuts they are forced to make. Many resent the national council tax freeze, which deprives them of an emergency device to patch up essential services. They fear that hastily implemented welfare reforms will land them with rent arrears in social housing and homeless families to accommodate. “It is all doom and gloom,” says one council leader of the mood on the ground.

Common complaints are that the party machine is rusty, that its central office is staffed with lightweights and that Labour campaign teams are more motivated and better organised. There is little progress in developing a plan to win back long-lost voters in the north of England and Scotland and among minority communities.

These are not gripes about ideological direction: they are the grumbles of a demoralised infantry whose commanding officers are miles from the front, fantasising about the next big push and apparently unaware their ill-equipped troops are struggling just to hold the line.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide