Giving Dave a headache

Just when the Tories have a real strategy to announce, a banana skin presents itself

Keeping the faithful faithful and keeping the faithless quiet was always going to be a delicate and long-running test for David Cameron. After a significant few days featuring the odd moronically wrong announcement, speech and poll, his team is embarking on "an election strategy against Brown, beginning next week".

Never mind the strategy, the problem is the cock-ups. It is impossible to find a party aide who understands what made Hugo Swire suggest that museums might be allowed to charge admission. Why mention it? Phone calls to party headquarters produced creative reactions ranging from "I'll call you back" to "I dunno, he made it up?" Swire's failure to understand the likely reaction of the press was disappointing for everyone, and what really riled party workers was the huge amount of work that had gone into the past week's speeches and the NHS white paper. Even though he was one of the loyal early supporters of Cameron, there is much chat that Hugo will be the blue-blooded sacrifice in the "whoops, too many Etonians" shake-up. One sulky MP was particularly peeved that the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, had been able to have a pop. "It's just typical that smug Jowell is first to berate when she's been pilfering money from the arts to pay for her bloody Olympic logos." A good point from a grumpy man.

In an attempt to curb the rising blunder quotient, Cameron has asked his close friend and aide George Bridges to validate every word put out in the name of the party. A Tory aide says, "Yes, George is an Old Etonian, but he is very shrewd and has a sense of what is real." George is a grandson of Sir Edward Bridges, the wartime head of the Cabinet Office, and a great-grandson of Robert Bridges the poet laureate; he was also at No 10 under John Major. As such, he has seen what can, and will, go wrong. With his trademark spectacles, he's quite decorative, too - think "Jarvis Cocker in Gieves & Hawkes". It is a huge responsibility that no more gaffes (or "misinterpretations", as they are called at party HQ) happen. George, who is known in Tory circles as "the chicest of geeks", does have a lot of respect. Only this past week, Cameron was heard insisting down his mobile, "If you want something done - get George Bridges." However, no matter how much control you may have over press releases and speeches, not even Bridges can prevent throwaway comments made by blethering MPs. That is the real challenge.

This is not a vision

Another challenge is the often-made rejoinder "What does Cameron actually stand for?" - a question posed by whiny, pinched Labour females and pleased-with-themselves lefty comics/lifestyle commentators. They will be relieved to see that the Tories have just launched a white paper on the NHS. A confident senior aide is adamant: "This is not a pithy vision. It's not a consultation. This is manifesto policy, in print, proving we are behind the NHS and what exactly we will do." Party members will certainly be comforted to see policy. Another aide says tentatively, "I think it is extremely brave. We could have had two years to put this policy out there, but we decided not to hold back."

The press office was buoyed by the Pavlovian response of Gordon Brown. A press officer sneered, "Brown, PM in less than a week, clearly made a call to his chums at GMTV to swiftly announce his intention to 'tour the country to find out what people want of their NHS'." The Conservative press corps are obviously watching Brown closely. He added, "Gordon also gave a speech at Unison, a last-minute addition to the line-up: an unprepared, stumbling, uncombed performance, in an attempt to gain our ground on health."

Feedback from party members on Tory websites indicates they are pleased that the shadow home secretary, David Davis, is to have a task force to develop policies of "social mobility". Even though this was written up in the following day's press as Davis stepping in to neutralise a tricky moment for Cam eron, a Davis aide is keen to point out that the idea was not introduced hurriedly. "The idea of a social mobility task force came to David over Christmas" - I'm imagining angels and ethereal lighting around his Aga in Yorkshire - "and he wrote a piece which appeared in the Sunday Times on New Year's Eve." Davis will look at issues such as the housing ladder, not going the university route, and vocational training.

The Research Department's policy review findings will continue over the summer. But in the coming week, during the Blair/Brown butterfly-to-moth changeover, the Tories plan to sit back and observe. The week after that, expect social justice from Iain Duncan Smith and, next month, global poverty, economic competitiveness and sustaining rural communities. The mood at party headquarters is uncharacteristically serious, as earnest workers are determined that 18 months of dedicated hard graft not be wasted in half a paragraph of press coverage, or utterly obscured because a shadow cabinet member announces all kittens must die. "We've done our homework. We haven't been locked in Millbank making paper airplanes, or building chewing-gum shrines to the leader," says a researcher. Not like the Duncan Smith days, then.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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