Conservative MP and former climate change minister Greg Barker. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian.
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Greg Barker: Tories must not "dance off to the right"

Conservative MP and former climate change minister says his party must "relentlessly" pursue modernisation. 

For this week's Conservative conference edition of the New Statesman, I interviewed Greg Barker, Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle, former climate change minister (he accompanied David Cameron to the Arctic Circle in 2006) and ultra-moderniser. You can read the piece in full here, but here are some of the highlights. 

Tories must not "dance off to right" and must "relentlessly" pursue modernisation

Confronted by the threat of Ukip, Barker warned that the Tories must occupy "the centre ground of British politics, rather than dancing off to the right" and that they must "relentlessy" pursue modernisation. 

He told me: "I worry that there are people who would like to drop the modernisation agenda and that want to take us closer to a Ukip set of policies. But I think you have to be relentlessly pursuing and making the case of why we should be forward looking, not backward looking, of why the future of the Conservative Party as an election-winning machine, as well as in terms of the best for the electorate, depends on us occupying the centre ground of British politics, rather than dancing off to the right

"However real the immediate threat may be from Ukip, what voters respect in the long-term is authenticity in their political parties and I think we are authentically centre-right, best at offering a future which is driven by an optimistic outlook on the UK’s potential, rather than trying to drag us back to the 1950s."

Of Douglas Carswell's defection, he said: "I thought it was treacherous. If he’s happier in Ukip, well that’s the best place for him."

Lib Dem Ed Davey is "a bit right-wing for me"

Declaring himself to be "unashamedly pro-alition", Barker told me that the partnership with the Lib Dems had been "a remarkable success". 

He said that he had had "a very good relationship" with Energy Secretary Ed Davey, adding in a remark that will do the Lib Dem no favours:  he is "a bit right-wing for me". "He’s rather laissez-faire. I would favour slightly more radical market interventions. The same is probably true of Chris Huhne [Davey’s predecessor as energy secretary]."

Tories "musn't obsess about Europe"

In response to calls from some Tory MPs for David Cameron to declare his willingess to campaign for EU withdrawal, Barker told me that the party "musn't obsess about Europe" and urged recalcitrant backbenchers to "rally round David, stop obsessing about every dot and comma in our negotiating position and actually give him the space and time to get the deal for Britain". 

He added: "I am not one of those politicians who lies awake in the middle of the night worrying about Brussels. The way that David Cameron has handled Europe is superlative. For a Tory prime minister to try and navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of different wings on the Tory Party on this a very, very difficult task, and I think he’s done it extraordinarily well. Now, it needs people to bite their lips, give him space, get behind him, and give him that negotiating space."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Northern Ireland's election: Will Arlene Foster pay the price for a domestic scandal?

The wind is in Sinn Féin's sails. But both parties have to work together after the poll. 

Will voters use the forthcoming elections to the Northern Ireland assembly to punish ministerial incompetence?

After all, these elections are all about the Democratic Unionists’ Arlene Foster and her disastrous mishandling of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, the energy subsidy she previously introduced as enterprise minister without putting cost controls in place, thus racking-up a £500m liability for the Northern Ireland Executive.

Her refusal to stand aside as First Minister and allow an independent investigation triggered a sequence of events that collapsed the power-sharing executive that runs Northern Ireland, necessitating this poll.

The electorate offers its verdict on Thursday.

So far, there has been a predictable rhythm to the campaign. Cautious and insular, the parties have all been here before and know how to harvest their vote. Elections in Northern Ireland are effectively a race to see who can shore up their core the most, (made harder by the overall reduction in seats from 108 to 90 across 18 multi-member constituencies).

Foster knows she is fighting for her political life. Her woeful handling of the RHI scandal, exposed her severe limitations as a politician. Brittle and stubborn, she further damaged her reputation at the DUP’s manifesto launch by refusing to take any questions from journalists on the basis she had "man flu".

Her pitch was a sectarian "Project Fear" warning that Sinn Fein might overtake the DUP as the largest party and push for an early referendum on Irish unity. Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams joked after the launch on Twitter: "Just for the record, I didn't give Arlene the flu." 

Foster’s campaign might be ugly, but in Northern Ireland’s hyper-tribal polity, it could prove effective. If the DUP suffers a reversal, however, her colleagues may yet think twice about re-nominating her for First Minister/deputy First Minister.

Meanwhile, as Sinn Féin’s new "leader in the North" Michelle O’Neill finds herself in exactly the same situation as Foster was 12 months ago at the last assembly elections - taking over from a male predecessor who had been a mainstay of the political process for years.

O’Neill is so far proving formidable. She benefits from the fact the wind is blowing in Sinn Féin’s sails. After all, the reasons for this election - the DUP’s incompetence - will play well among republicans and nationalists. 

Sinn Féin’s pitch is therefore about ensuring "equality, respect and integrity", with O’Neill claiming this is "the most important election since the Good Friday Agreement". The Shinners are pushing for the strongest possible mandate in what O’Neill describes as the "short, sharp negotiation" that will take place after the elections. She says she doesn’t want a new agreement, "just the implementation of previous ones".

In terms of the other parties, Mike Nesbitt, a former television journalist turned leader of the Ulster Unionists, deserves credit for trying to appeal beyond the tribe. He has offered his second preference vote to the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party. Tactically, he has to try something to dislodge the UUP from the political sediment.

Both the UUP and SDLP are essentially fighting for relevance in these elections. They constantly claim the electorate has had enough of the SF-DUP duopoly and wants change, it’s just that the voters never vote for it. 

Following Thursday’s results comes the hard bargaining, if the parties are to get power-sharing up and running again and avoid a period of direct rule from the Northern Ireland Office. Both Foster and O’Neill need to be seen to strike a hard bargain. Foster will be desperate to claim she is still in control of events. O’Neill, the newcomer, will want to show she is no pushover.

If she is smart, Foster will  push for an early restoration of the executive and try to put this mess behind her. If, on the other hand, there is a lengthy delay, the election could become a running sore. After all, as the DUP may yet have to be reminded, power-sharing lies at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.