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No wonder Tory ministers are off-message: not even Cameron knows what the message should be

The Prime Minister has never come up with an intellectually sustainable explanation of the economic crisis.

Would the UK Independence Party shut up shop if it achieved its goal of pulling Britain out of the European Union? Plainly not. Liberation from Imperial Brussels is the struggle that gave the party its name, but there is no end of suspected foreign mischief to sustain Nigel Farage’s partisan brigades in permanent cultural insurgency.

In reality, enterprising migrants create jobs, boost growth and claim proportionately few benefits. But Ukip has an ambiguous relationship with reality. It feeds on reasonable anxiety provoked by social and economic upheaval. It turns nostalgia for lost certainties into rage at the expropriation of indigenous entitlements. It comforts by denying theneed to adapt to the times, selling instead self-righteous victimhood at the hands of foreigners, bureaucrats, the metropolitan elite, proselytising homosexuals.

Fear and blame are vast resources at a time of economic crisis but it is a duty of mature, democratic politicians not to exploit them. That doesn’t stop the Conservatives from trying. In the aftermath of the Eastleigh byelection, in which Ukip pushed the Tories into third place, ministers have been lashing out at familiar foes. Iain Duncan Smith found himself anguished afresh at the scourge of “benefit tourism”. Meanwhile, Theresa May and Chris Grayling remembered their horror at the European Convention on Human Rights and their determination one day to prise it out of British law.

I doubt many Eastleigh voters went into polling booths wishing parliament would be more blasé about torture. It is true that the Ukip complex sees human rights as a European affectation in conflict with the common sense of Old Albion, but it does Conservatives no favours to be nurturing that view. The Human Rights Act will not be scrapped in this parliament. Whitehall lawyers, reasonable Tories and the Liberal Democrats will not permit it.

The only effect of the Grayling and May interventions is to tease grass-roots Tories with something they want but can’t have as long as David Cameron is in Downing Street – an invitation to continue supporting Ukip as the Real Conservatives in Exile.

Cameron’s response to the by-election humiliation was a promise not to “lurch to the right”. The mixed message cannot have been co-ordinated. The No 10 communications operation is often criticised for lacking consistency but no one thinks it is so incompetent as to launch a two-pronged attack with the prongs facing in opposite directions. The better explanation is that Cameron is losing control of ministers much as he lost control of his backbench MPs.

Some of the more moderate voices around the Prime Minister have long been frustrated with May’s clunky illiberalism, especially where immigration policy is concerned. There are ministers and aides who recognise that a policy of snarling hostility to foreigners harms Britain’s reputation as a country open for business to the rest of the world. It does nothing to advance the UK’s position in the “global race”, which is supposed to be Cameron’s governing purpose. For now.

Tory MPs don’t anticipate the global race selling any better on the doorstep than “the big society”, which was the Conservative leader’s unwavering ambition before he wavered. Yet there is a deeper problem with the theme, which is that the Tory account of Britain’s economic plight, as set out before the 2010 election, was the opposite of global. It was insular and parochial. Cameron explained with lethal simplicity how Labour had spent all the money – maxed out the credit card – and how only national belt-tightening could lead to recovery. He and George Osborne are now learning that international forces determine whether the UK economy grows or shrinks. Their problem is that a message crafted out of that insight sounds like a lame excuse for failure – the very charge that was levelled against Gordon Brown when he talked about a global crisis.

It is an error of category and chronology to see Cameron’s dilemma after Eastleigh as a choice between holding a centre course or lurching to the right. The lurch was already made back in 2008, when the Tory leadership failed to grasp what was happening in the financial meltdown and reached for glib answers that obscured the truth. They didn’t see it then as a crisis of globalised market capitalism and have never come up with an intellectually sustainable explanation of what else it might have been.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise when malfunction in an internationalist, liberal system produces illiberal, populist backlash.

There is a cultural nuance and presentational sophistication to Ukip that allows it to reach beyond the old skinhead model of the far right, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t ultimately a nationalist party, committed to the politics of pulling up the drawbridge, vilifying outsiders and purging enemies within.

Before the crisis, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories were all supporters of the elite, cosmopolitan, pro-globalisation consensus; their leaders voiced no reservations about the model until it failed. Owning up to that error and developing a plausible alternative is a slow and difficult process for any politician who wants to govern responsibly. For those who don’t, there is a quicker and easier route. It involves peddling simple solutions based on prejudice and fear. Cameron insists that the Tories aren’t in that trade; all the evidence says otherwise.

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

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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