Show Hide image

Everyone’s talking about Nigel, but it’s Nick who has shaken up Westminster for good

The stubborn survival of Clegg may prove to be more significant than the noisy arrival of Farage.

There is a stark choice facing British politics, expressed in the rivalry between two leaders. They have very different styles and incompatible creeds. I refer, of course, to Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg.

Labour and the Tories have fought each other to a standstill. We already know the contours of every stone they throw. David Cameron is the haughty toff who cuts public services for pleasure. Ed Miliband is the gormless wonk without the strength to grip the axe. Their repetitive skirmishes win no defectors from the opposite tribe.

As a brace of midterm elections on 2 May showed, the fluid part of politics is elsewhere, in the competition to be England’s third party. In the race to fill David Miliband’s former South Shields seat, Farage’s candidate came second to Labour while Clegg’s came seventh. The Lib Dems lost 124 county councillors; Ukip gained 139. Clegg’s team are not as disheartened by those results as the other parties think they ought to be. They know that Labour strongholds are beyond reach and that a governing party cannot be a receptacle for protest. Hope resides instead in evidence that their support survived in parts of southern England with a local Lib Dem MP. If Ukip gnaws into the Tory base and Labour supporters vote tactically – a plausible scenario but not a reliable one – Clegg might hold enough seats to negotiate a new coalition in another hung parliament.

The Lib Dems are also encouraged by the failure of Labour and the Tories to neutralise public doubts that might deprive them of a majority. Miliband is not winning trust on the economy. Cameron is being dragged to the angry fringe by his party’s Ukip-fanciers. In theory, that opens up space for Clegg to present his party as more careful with money than Labour and nicer than the Tories.

Labour’s riposte is that the Lib Dems will sink in complicity with George Osborne’s economic vandalism. Meanwhile, those Conservatives who embrace Faragism insist it is no lunge to the right. Ukip, they say, feeds on anxieties about Europe, immigration and welfare that resonate across the political spectrum. They are right to the extent that voters mistrust all Westminster parties. That doesn’t mean the best response is to enter a rhetorical arms race with Farage. He will always win that game because he doesn’t have to say things that could turn into responsible government policy.

The worst reaction Tories could have to Ukip’s rise would be the one they look determined to pursue – parading their dissatisfaction with Cameron’s current Europe policy. Even before the council elections, Conservative MPs were lobbying the Prime Minister to underpin his promise of a 2017 referendum on renegotiated EU membership with a parliamentary vote this side of an election. Then Nigel Lawson, the former chancellor, declared the whole renegotiation strategy pointless and urged a prompter plebiscite. Enough Tories prefer the Lawson plan to Cameron’s for unity to be lost.

Judging by past form, Downing Street will resist a change of line and be bullied into one. This process sends two important signals. First, Tory MPs think a pledge from their leader is worthless currency. Second, the Prime Minister’s agenda is set by menaces, not conviction. That is an incitement for disillusioned Tories to stick with Ukip.

It is also coalition sabotage. One purpose of forcing an EU vote in parliament would be to expose the Lib Dems as obstacles to a referendum. Many Conservatives want to use the remainder of this parliament to advertise carnivorous things they would do once released from Clegg’s queasy yellow clutches – clawing away more benefits and chewing up human rights law, for example. But two years is a long time to preface every statement with “if only”. The Tories can either be the kind of party that does business with Clegg or be the kind that craves congress with Farage. They look ridiculous trying to be both.

For Lib Dems, the distinction is between two styles of politics. There is the managerial one, laden with compromise, made necessary by coalition. Or there is the chase after protest votes and none-of-the-above outrage that they know well but had to abandon on entering government. Add a history of being pro-European, relaxed about immigration and socially liberal and Clegg starts to look like the anti-Farage – a weary denier of popular solutions. “As a country, do we want the fantasy ‘close your eyes and wish it all away’ offer from Grinning Nigel?” is how one senior Lib Dem strategist puts it. “Or do we want serious, centrist government?”

In the current climate it might not be the most enticing proposition: Clegg as the continuity candidate of bloodless Westminster technocracy. Labour certainly thinks drastic change is in the air. Miliband believes the financial crisis heralds the obsolescence of old free-market dogmas. Many Tories also believe the centre of gravity has shifted, but in their preferred direction. They see Ukip’s success as proof that the new sweet spot is over to the right.

Only the Lib Dems insist that the centre ground is where it has been for a generation – between an expensive social conscience and flint-hearted frugality. They are also alone in wanting a hung parliament, which remains the likeliest general election outcome in 2015. The real disruption to the established way of doing politics may yet turn out to be not protest votes but coalition; not the noisy arrival of Farage but the stubborn survival of Clegg.

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

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

David Young
Show Hide image

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