Tories can't master message discipline until Cameron has a clear message

Conservatives struggle to say things that sound like the sort of thing their leader would say.

One thing that has surprised pretty much everyone in Westminster over the past couple of years is the endurance of Labour message discipline. There are occasional bursts of sniping from the sidelines – usually in the form of anonymous briefings and half-reported mutterings by sullen MPs when Ed Miliband seems to be under-performing. Then he makes a clever speech, or the government does something idiotic, and everyone falls neatly back into line. It is really quite impressive for a party that was heavily defeated in 2010 and was supposed, according to the pre-ordained media script, to fall apart in civil strife.

The usual explanation for this unity is that Miliband hasn’t made enough tough policy choices that would open up the divisions that were, according to the now yellowing media script, supposed to yawn wide in 2010. That is partly true – and, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should point out that I make that very argument around half-way through this column in the Sunday Times today.

But it is also worth noting that discipline doesn’t come exclusively from policy vagueness. Plenty of Labour MPs are unhappy with the leader’s lack of clarity on a range of issues, but they don’t say so on the record. Indeed, one senior BBC journalist complained to me the other day about how hard it was getting Labour guests on a flagship Westminster programme who might say anything at all to deviate from the official Team Miliband script. That isn’t just vagueness. It is strength of will and determination to win.

By contrast, the Tories simply can’t stick to the lines David Cameron would have them parrot. David Jones, the Welsh Secretary, properly disgraced himself last week by suggesting that gay couples can’t bring up children in a nurturing environment. In theory, Tory divisions on gay marriage have been sanctioned by Downing Street – parliament had a free vote on the issue. But that doesn’t excuse cabinet ministers dribbling out tired and hateful homophobic clichés about the unsuitability of gay men or women for loving family relationships.

If Conservatives were at all loyal to Cameron and truly determined to win an election, they might at least pretend to believe some of the same things their leader does.

Then there is Maria Hutchings, the Tory candidate in the Eastleigh by-election, who was reported last week to have said her son’s ambitions to be a surgeon meant he couldn’t possibly attend a state school. That is surely not how Cameron would have phrased his views on comprehensive education. Hutchings also disagrees with Cameron on gay marriage and has said she would vote to leave the European Union. The Daily Mail recently ran a profile of her as the “off-message” candidate - as if fighting the by-election on a Ukip-lite platform were part of some cunning plan by Tory high command to close off the threat from Nigel Farage and thereby snatch the seat. I don’t buy it. Hutchings was the Tory candidate in 2010 – picked from an “A-list” – when the party was supposed to be modernised, socially liberal, Cameroon.

The fact that she is the candidate again (and it is always a hazard offering voters a meal they have sent back to the kitchen once before) proves only that the Cameron operation didn’t really vet it’s A-list very well and hasn’t been paying much attention to candidate selection since getting into government. But now they’re stuck with Hutchings and are doing their best to make a virtue of her. She might still win, of course, but I imagine Cameron would rather be bringing loyal MPs fashioned in his own image into parliament instead of more “off message” mavericks. I doubt Downing Street chose to withdraw the whip from Nadine Dorries only so they could import Eastleigh’s Dorries tribute act.

Then consider John O’Farrell, Labour’s minor celebrity candidate in Eastleigh. A comedian and writer – surely he would be a liability, firing off message all over the place. But no. Even on Twitter, his wit has been channelled carefully down the appropriate slogan-delivery tubes. On 14th February, he joked:

Fear I have already turned into political robot. Valentines card to wife just said 'Vote Labour in #Eastleigh for a One Nation alternative'.

I suspect that was closer to the truth than he or anyone else in the Labour machine would like to admit. The party is still pretty good at command and control on the ground, especially in a by-election. In one contest recently, I phoned the candidate directly on his mobile to ask what he was up to and was told, quite plainly, that he had no idea but would find out soon enough because his party minders would tell him and steer him in the right direction.

It’s worth noting also how astonishingly disciplined the Lib Dems have been in government, given how cruelly coalition has savaged their opinion poll rating and massacred their local government base. That can’t just be down to party organisation. For one thing, the Lib Dems don’t have enough money to run a ferociously organised party and for another thing, their democratic structures – where everything is supposed to be settled by committee – are positively designed to amplify dissent. As with Labour, the Lib Dem discipline flows from many individual efforts of sheer will. Even if MPs are uncertain about the leader’s line, they stick with it in public.

But for that to work, there has to be a line to take. Whether they agree with Miliband or not, Labour MPs have a pretty clear sense of where he is coming from and what he is trying to do. They understand the “too far, too fast” message on the economy and they broadly understand how “One Nation Labour” is a soft social-democrat fudge to make everyone feel good about the future without making specific commitments to reduce public services in austere times. They may not think that is the best strategy, but they can do it if a microphone is put in front of them.

Likewise, the Lib Dems know the plan is to present themselves as more economically responsible than Labour and more compassionate than the Tories. They know what it is they are supposed to have achieved in government and how it is meant to have tamed the wilder excesses of fanatical Conservative back benchers. They may not think it is enough, but they know the script.

That doesn’t seem to be the case for the Tories. Naturally they can defend government policy when asked to do so but that isn’t the same as defending David Cameron’s policy. He supports gay marriage and very much wants Britain to stay in the European Union, for example. It is hardly news that many Conservatives don’t agree with their leader on certain totemic cultural matters. What I find remarkable is how unwilling they are to keep quiet about it and how rubbish the Number 10 machine is at keeping a lid on unhelpful noise.

The root of the problem – and one explanation for different patterns of behaviour in different parties – is that there are two elements to message discipline. Yes, MPs need to be disciplined, but leaders also need to know what their message actually is to begin with.

Conservative candidate in Eastleigh, Maria Hutchings. Source: Getty

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

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Boris Johnson peddled absurd EU myths – and our disgraceful press followed his lead

Press coverage of the referendum was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts.

The pound plummeted, the Prime Minister resigned, stock markets plunged and the UK began to unravel, as did the post-1945 world order. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and Isis were celebrating the Brexit vote but that didn’t stop our disgraceful national press from crowing. “Take a bow, Britain!” the Daily Mail declared. “So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, ADIEU”, the Sun quipped in a headline. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed the “birth of a new Britain”.

They and others – the Express, the Morning Star, several of the Sunday papers – were claiming victory: a victory achieved after a relentless campaign of lies and Soviet-style propaganda about the European Union that long pre-dated the referendum. Indeed, it was a campaign that began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Boris Johnson, who had been fired by the Times for making up a quotation, was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels.

Johnson did not invent Euroscepticism but he took it to new levels. A brilliant caricaturist, he made his name by mocking, lampooning and ridiculing the EU. He wrote stories headlined “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same”, “Threat to British pink sausages” and “Snails are fish, says EU”. He wrote about plans to standardise condom sizes and ban prawn cocktail flavour crisps. He set up Jacques Delors, who was then the European Commission president, as a bogeyman and claimed credit for persuading Denmark to reject the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 with a Sunday Telegraph splash – “Delors plan to rule Europe” – that was seized on by the Nej campaign.

To Johnson, it was all a bit of a jape. “[I] was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive ­effect on the Tory party – and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power,” he told the BBC years later.

That many of Johnson’s stories bore scant relation to the truth did not matter. They were colourful and fun. The Telegraph and right-wing Tories loved them. So did other Fleet Street editors, who found the standard Brussels fare tedious and began to press their own correspondents to follow suit. I know this because I became the Brussels correspondent of the Times in 1999 and suffered the consequences.

Soon, a Europe of scheming bureaucrats plotting to rob Britain of its ancient liberties, or British prime ministers fighting gallant rearguard actions against an increasingly powerful superstate, or absurd directives on banana shapes, became the only narratives that many papers were interested in. They were narratives that exploited our innate nationalism, distrust of foreigners and sense of superiority. They were narratives so strong that our political leaders mostly chose to play along with them.

The EU is arrogant, bureaucratic, wasteful and meddlesome. It desperately needs reforming. But post-Boris, its great achievements – cementing peace, uniting the continent, creating the world’s largest single market, enabling its citizens to travel and live anywhere they choose, busting mono­polies, improving the environment – have gone largely unreported. Similarly ignored is that Britain has many natural allies in Europe and has enjoyed some significant successes: competition policy, free trade, eastward enlargement. The French now regard the EU as a plot to impose Anglo-Saxon economics on the continent. True, we lost the argument on the euro and the Schengen Agreement, but we won opt-outs.

With a few honourable exceptions – such as the Financial Times, the Times and the Guardian – the referendum coverage was merely a supercharged version of what had gone before. It was led by the biggest broadsheet (the Telegraph), the biggest mid-­market paper (the Mail) and the biggest tabloid (the Sun). And it was based on myths: that we pay £350m a week to Brussels, that we can continue to enjoy access to the single market without freedom of movement, that millions of Turks are heading our way because their country is about to join the EU, that immigrants are destroying the NHS rather than keeping it going.

The coverage was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts. Loughborough University found that 82 per cent of all referendum stories, adjusted for newspaper circulations, were negative. The conventional wisdom is that newspapers don’t matter any more but they do when just 635,000 votes for Remain ­instead of Leave would have averted this national catastrophe. They do when the press is a primary source of information for millions of Brits. They do when most of our papers have relentlessly portrayed the EU as the monster of Johnson’s fertile imagination, not just for a few months, but for more than two decades.

The referendum was a chance for our national press, particularly the tabloid press, to restore its standing after the phone-hacking scandal and to prove its continuing worth to the British people. Sadly, most newspapers chose wilfully to deceive, mislead and inflame. They decided to follow Johnson’s lead by peddling lies and phoney patriotism. They helped him to hoodwink the millions of poorer, less-educated Britons – those who will be the first to suffer from Brexit’s consequences – into voting against their own interests.

Johnson campaigned against a myth of his own creation, with the result that a mendacious pundit, one who achieved prominence by writing entertaining but dangerous nonsense, is the odds-on favourite to be our next prime minister.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies