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Cameron’s cavalier style has the Tory infantry feeling like lions led by a donkey

Labour cherishes serial Tory backbench disloyalty because it chips away at Cameron’s credentials as a man in command.

It is not most people’s idea of a race. The competitors are either standing still or shuffling backwards away from the finish line. Such is the state of play in David Cameron and Ed Miliband’s pursuit of a parliamentary majority at the next election.

The Labour leader, after a phase of incremental advance, is stationary again. Miliband’s MPs are getting used to his ponderous, halting rhythm but it doesn’t make them comfortable. None believes Labour’s lead in the opinion polls is what it could be against a divided Conservative Party presiding over economic failure.

The source of Labour’s greatest comfort has nothing to do with policy. It is the death of Conservative plans to redraw constituency boundaries, which means the opposition has a modest headstart in the accumulation of seats.

To overcome that obstacle, the Tories need a surge of public support well beyond their core vote – unusual but not impossible for an incumbent party.

For the electoral battle to come, Labour MPs are mathematically confident and intellectually anxious. They have an advantage but suspect it is unearned. For Conservatives it is the other way around. They know the numbers are against them but are sure that popular opinion on big questions – welfare, crime, immigration, Europe – sits firmly to the right of Miliband. What demoralises many Tory MPs is the sense that this advantage is being squandered by No 10.

That feeling is not restricted to Eurosceptic mutineers and Ukip fanciers. Even MPs who want to be loyal find themselves blaming Cameron for mishandling the restive element, either by failing to impose discipline or by confecting needless provocations. While Europe has captured the headlines as a source of Tory neuralgia, it is Cameron’s plan to legislate in favour of gay marriage that has fired the fury in local Conservative associations. It is the kind of issue that can turn an MP’s stroll through the constituency into a finger-wagging ordeal.

“In terms of the mailbag, complaints about gay marriage outnumber Europe by a factor of 80 to one,” says a Tory backbencher. Others confirm the ratio. Parliament will have a free vote on the matter, so the prospect of 120 Tories rejecting the bill does not count technically as a rebellion; but it is still a rebuke to Cameron’s agenda to “modernise” his party.

While some believe the leader’s championing of gay rights risks looking like a brandmanagement ploy, his friends insist that he is motivated only by dedication to the cause. Either way, Cameron has accidentally organised a parade of intemperate reaction that can only remind voters why the Tories needed modernising in the first place. Of the small numbers who choose a government for its commitment to gay equality, none will switch allegiance because of this specific gambit.

What riles Tory MPs above all is the all too-familiar picture of their leader playing the part of aristocrat officer, barking unrealistic orders at his battle-scarred troops without a care for conditions in the trenches. “It all comes across as a bit Melchett,” says one disappointed Cameroon MP, referring to Stephen Fry’s portrayal of a pompous, dimwit First World War general in the Blackadder series. The Tory infantry see themselves as lions led by a donkey.

Compounding questions about the Prime Minister’s judgement are doubts about the rigour of the Downing Street machine. The “grid” system developed by Tony Blair’s team to map out announcements and spot hazards on the horizon is said to have broken down. One former No 10 staffer reports that Cameron’s planning operation looks ahead no further than two months at a time, which, in terms of strategic perspective and problemsolving, is like crossing the road while contemplating your shoelaces.

Labour’s top brass are far from complacent but they have become noticeably less fearful. Those who once privately credited Cameron and George Osborne as shrewd operators are concluding that the Tory leadership might be a pair of amateurs after all. One senior shadow cabinet minister likes to joke that the Tories have reached levels of division and disarray in two years that Labour achieved only after a decade in office: “It took us years to be this bad at government.”

By contrast, inside Cameron’s team there are reserves of confidence based on two calculations. First, there is the continuing belief that even a frail economic recovery would justify a campaign claiming credit for progress and warning that Labour would turn the clock back. Second, Downing Street has undimmed faith that Miliband, irrespective of improvements in his media and parliamentary performances, will never match the public profile of a credible national leader.

Cameron’s relaxedness about the Labour threat only stokes the ire of Tory MPs, who think arrogance and complacency are his chief failings. A tiny but implacable platoon dreams of removing the leader and replacing him with someone of more muscular Conservative credentials, although there is no agreement on who that might be. That is a rather crucial omission for would-be plotters and it confirms the Downing Street view that the seditious whispers are symptoms of midterm panic among MPs who don’t know how to win an election and imagine that any fresh face at the top would somehow reset the dial in the Tories’ favour. (It wouldn’t.) “All those people wishing something magical would happen are deluding themselves,” says a senior party strategist.

Meanwhile, Labour cherishes serial Tory backbench disloyalty because it chips away at Cameron’s credentials as a man in command. The hope is that Miliband’s stature will be enhanced if the Prime Minister’s authority declines. Neither is growing much in the public’s estimation, but that is the peculiar, uninspiring nature of their race. Victory belongs to the one who shrinks the least.

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

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation