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Commons Confidential: A donkey stalks Westminster

Why has supposed Tory leadership hopeful Adam Afriyie been popping in to visit Liam Fox?

Declarations of loyalty to David Cameron from Adam Afriyie were undermined by an admission he had discussed the “long-term future of the party” with other Tories. The hapless Windsor MP may be more stalking donkey than stalking horse but his wealth, reportedly as large as £100m, buys him clout. He might never wear the crown, but one so rich could finance a coronation. Which office did my snout see Afriyie popping in and out of in the weeks before the great plot was publicly alleged? None other than the Commons den – an office along a corridor called the North Curtain, a short cut from the hairdressers – of Dr Liam Fox. Afriyie may not harbour leadership ambitions but I’m not sure the same could be said of the right-wing former defence secretary.

The “Nazi stag party” MP Aidan Burley continues to confound colleagues on the Commons work and pensions committee with his poor grasp of government programmes. Hurly-Burley interrupted a discussion of Disability Living Allowance with a question about Employment and Support Allowance. My informant said it was rather like raising India during deliberations on South America. The more I hear about Burley, the easier it is to grasp how he failed to understand that an SS uniform would cause offence. I suspect he isn’t overwhelmed with bids when pub quiz teams are formed.

Interesting to note how peers’ attendance in the House of Cronies is going up with their expenses. A parliamentary answer disclosed that the average daily turnout in 2010 was 397 unelected lawmakers, who claimed a mean (in the arithmetical sense) of £270. Fast-forward to 2012 and the typical attendance was up to 488 and the average payout had risen to £287. Meanwhile, Lords staff are heading for their fourth successive annual pay freeze.

Food for thought after Ed Miliband and Mervyn King got into a stew by claiming that Brendan Barber would be going on a Jamie Oliver cookery course after he retired from the TUC. The Labour leader and the governor of the Bank of England, I gather, both got the wrong end of the ladle at the general sec’s farewell party. Barber is no union chef. The recipe for confusion is blamed on a half-boiled rumour.

The Pizzagate photograph of the upper-crust Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson enjoying a Davos dinner on the eve of hard cheese for the British economy has been labelled, as William Cash notes on page 13, the Bullingdon Club on tour. Despite its familiarity, the idea that the three most powerful Tories were members of the same Hooray Henry society at Oxford retains the ability to startle. I’m told Boris boasts privately that his £389,625, including Torygraphmoney, exceeds the salaries of Dave and George combined. They’re not all in this together.

Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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