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PM, make the Dogger grovel

“How can someone who went to Rugby call anyone a pleb?”

Heartfelt apologies to the many readers out there who, noticing my absence from these pages, must have spent the past eight months – can it really have been that long? – anxiously scanning the obits for fear of my demise. Fear not, dear readers, I live.

Just. Those with better-thanaverage memories will recall my last appearance in these pages, when it appeared that I had fallen asleep as a speech by Julian Fellowes at the “Inaugural Coalition Fundraising Dinner Dance” entered its second hour. If only I had been so lucky. In reality, Fellowes, in his infinite tedium, had managed to render me comatose.

For many months the doctors thought the wretched man might have killed me (apparently the CPS seriously considered bringing charges – a legal first!), before I regained consciousness on Good Friday and, over a particularly bloody summer, gradually recaptured the bits of my brain that Fellowes had battered insensate.

My lapse was rare but not unique. The records showing that a Norman Fowler stump speech in 1987 left an innocent shopper catatonic and, more recently, two unfortunates were discovered to be in comas having paid to see An Audience with Dom Joly. You cannot be too careful.

Uncoincidentally, my absence has seen Tory support plummet. So severely that last week DC called upon me, even though he knew full well that bits of Fellowes were still lodged in my cranium.

“Gidster, you won’t believe what Dogger has done now.” (Note for the uninitiated: Andrew Mitchell is known as Dogger. Don’t ask.)

“Killed someone?”

“He’s gone and called a policeman a pleb.”

“What . . . ?”

“Within hours of my condolences of the nation speech he calls a copper a pleb.”

“But that makes no sense.”

“It’s beyond senseless.”

“How can someone who went to Rugby call anyone a pleb?”

“Forget the fine details, GD. How do we play this out?”

“I mean that’s like a parvenu calling a nouve a prole. It doesn’t –”

“Gideon, this is no time for semantics: what the fuck do I do?”

“Draw a line under it, PM. Make the Dogger grovel.”

“Over to you, GD . . .”

Frothing at mouth

Our problem was blurring the issues. The “misunderstanding” gambit seemed a runner, given Dogger’s propensity to froth, particularly after a long curry. But “you fucking celeb” wasn’t really an improvement and “you fucking Hleb” just a little too obscure even for a football-obsessed nation. Obfuscation – I’m very clear about what I said and what I didn’t say and I didn’t say what it is said I said – just gave people a headache. And the suggestion that if used with a certain emphasis “pleb” could be viewed as a compliment never left the ground.

Line after line after line was, as the political pundits say, drawn in the sand. The Donald rule has always been that three lines and you’re out. But the Chief Whip clings on grimly like a pit bull clamping on to an infant’s plump arm. And no one, not even his consigliere, can persuade Dave that it is time to shoot this dangerous Dogger.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference 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