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Cameron has already picked his message for the next election – and “cleaning up politics” isn’t it

The PM doesn’t want to talk about the ills of lobbying any more than he wants to talk about shrinking Arctic glaciers, the “big society” or other things he once said were important.

At the last election, fixing politics seemed as urgent a task as fixing the economy. The collapse of trust in parliament during the expenses scandal was a twin catastrophe to the collapse of the financial sector.

Of the two challenges, reviving the economy was supposed to be the easy bit. The Chancellor’s emergency Budget of June 2010 assumed growth this year would be between 3 and 4 per cent. The Treasury is now working to a forecast of 0.6 per cent. Instead of planning pre-election bonanzas, George Osborne is haggling with ministers over more cuts to already scarred budgets. Optimistic scenarios envisage slow recovery with the cost of living rising faster than wages. Essential public services will decline; peripheral ones will vanish.

That prospect makes it a strategic necessity for the Tories to convince people that straitened living is as good as it gets under circumstances – a toxic Labour legacy, pan-European malaise – that are beyond the present government’s control. That isn’t quite the same as embracing pessimism, which is a campaign no-no. It means presenting a Conservative vote as the path of worthy sobriety, with Labour as the route to bingeing relapse.

Tory confidence that this will work grows with every poll showing that Labour is not trusted on the economy. Conservatives can also rely on a culture of quiescence that, to the perennial frustration of the left, steers Middle Englanders away from barricades.

To finish the job of discrediting Labour, Conservative strategists must make it hard for Ed Miliband to present himself as the owner of a realistic alternative plan. One way they do that is by turning the conversation at every opportunity to things the Labour leader doesn’t look comfortable talking about, which, helpfully for Downing Street, make a long list: spending restraint, welfare, European referendums, immigration.

The device is deployed without subtlety. A lobbying scandal erupts, for instance, in which the protagonist is a Conservative MP who agrees to take money from a bogus firm and promote the interests of a Fijian dictator. The government’s response is legislation that, among other things, would limit the role of trade union finance in elections.

There is a way of rationalising this so it doesn’t sound like a non sequitur. The Lib Dems say the aim is to impose transparency on “third parties” involved in political campaigning, which is a neat but disingenuous formula for making a democratic labour movement sound like organised corruption.

Nick Clegg’s office blames “aggressive briefing” by the Tories for inflaming the situation and insists that the proposed reforms are too modest to justify Labour fury. But plainly they are a provocation. They make sure the coming argument is about Miliband’s relationship with the unions, when it might have been about, say, the relationship between lobbying firms and Downing Street advisers past and present, including the present campaign chief, Lynton Crosby.

If a policy is coated in partisan cynicism and fashioned into a weapon for hurting Labour, Westminster usually looks for Osborne’s fingerprints. “Whenever doing something to trade unions comes up in government, George is always somewhere nearby,” notes a senior government source. There is a simple reason why the Tories’ top strategists would rather sabotage political reform than lead it. Whichever way you slice the issue, the kernel is always people with money jumping the queue to get access to power and influence. Cameron and Osborne are wise enough to steer clear of that debate, knowing that their privileged backgrounds would be deployed against them and their party donors would writhe in discomfort throughout. Most of the cabinet would look pretty awkward railing against Big Money.

Besides, Cameron has his message for the next election and “cleaning up politics” isn’t it. He doesn’t want to talk about the ills of lobbying any more than he wants to talk about shrinking Arctic glaciers, the “big society” or other things he once said were important. He doesn’t even want to talk about legislating for gay marriage, which could be sold as one of his political accomplishments but isn’t, because half of his party wants him to be ashamed of it.

The Downing Street script has been stripped down to its barest essentials: tackling the deficit, cutting welfare, controlling immigration – all things opinion polls show voters want and that Labour will be portrayed as unwilling to do. Partly, this expresses the limitations imposed on Cameron by a rebellious party that would rather dream of ending coalition than govern within it. Partly, it is a symptom of the new urgency inside No 10, expressed by Crosby’s streamlining instruction to “get the barnacles off the boat”.

A shrunken agenda also matches the shallowness of Cameron’s imagination, which has frustrated his MPs and his coalition partners. Although they expected very different things, both sides once thought the Conservative leader’s complacent country-house manner concealed reforming radicalism. They have now accepted it doesn’t.

Three years into a project that was born from economic and political emergency, it is clear that the Prime Minister is uninterested in doing things very differently from the way they have always been done. He isn’t excited about transforming politics or curious about alternative ways to run an economy, although the current models of both are failing. The economy, at least, is crawling out of recession. Politics is still shrinking.

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

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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