No mercy for Ming

The polls may be bad for David Cameron, but they are even worse for Menzies Campbell. The knives are

August has proved the cruellest month for David Cameron. After the grammar schools debacle, a calamitous decision to swap flood-soaked Witney for Rwanda and the dual by-election disaster, he has now notched up his worst poll ratings since becoming Tory leader.

To cap it all, the über-right-winger John Redwood then took to the stage - while the Tory leader was absent on a family holiday - to unveil a tranche of decidedly un-Cameroonian policies.

Cameron's dilemma is how to rein his rebellious party back to the centre ground while avoiding a full-on rebellion on his right flank. Not an easy task from a position of weakness.

According to a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times of 12 August, the Tories are now lagging ten points behind Labour. Worse still for Cameron, the Brown bounce has led to a slide in the number who think he is doing a good job, down from 54 per cent in April to just 29 per cent now. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Brown glories in a score of 65 per cent.

Yet a closer look at the figures shows that Cameron is not the only leader for whom the YouGov poll could spell disaster.

Sir Menzies Campbell is thought to be doing an even worse job than Cameron, with only 24 per cent giving him a vote of confidence, down 3 per cent in just four months. The Liberal Democrats are now languishing on 14 per cent - lower than at any time (bar one blip discussed later) since the 2005 general election.

Sir Ming's perilous position has largely failed to make the headlines, partly because the collapse in his party's standing has come in steady dribs and drabs - a percentage point here, a percentage point there. But the decline is no less significant for that.

It is often joked that Sir Ming is less popular sober than Charles Kennedy was drunk - and it's true that the heady 23 per cent scored by the Lib Dems at the last general election seems a long way off.

The one rogue result when the party's standing was lower than now came around the time Kennedy's drink problem was exposed, leading to his swift despatch. Even then, support stood at 13 per cent - just 1 per cent less than now.

The new 2 per cent slither to 14 per cent brought Lib Dem groans, not because they thought it was bad (they did), but because it was not quite dreadful enough. The party that sees itself as "nice" knows an assassination is urgently required, but no one quite has the gumption to wield the knife against mild-mannered Ming.

Instead, up and down the ranks, plotters are seeking a point at which the situation becomes so obviously bleak that they have no choice but to rid themselves of their distinctly unturbulent priest.

Many had hoped last month's Ealing Southall by-election would provide the magic bullet. With Cameron's Tories looking in fine fettle, several members of Ming's team secretly admitted they were praying for third place.

By-elections are the holy grail for Liberal Democrat MPs. Since the 1980s, many of them have entered parliament in between general elections with blitzkrieg assaults on former government strongholds.

So when it emerged that the Conservative candidate, Tony Lit, had donated money to Labour, it was not just a disaster for Cameron. One prominent Lib Dem MP, returning from campaigning in Ealing, arrived at an eve-of-poll summer party thrown by a leading party member exclaiming: "F*** - it looks like we might win this thing now." He was consoled by several frontbenchers, at least two prospective MPs, several backbenchers and various Lib Dem peers.

The result was worse than the plotters feared. Ming couldn't even confound his critics by winning the seat; instead, he clung to his usual mediocrity by hanging on in second place. For timid Liberal Democrats this was the worst possible outcome. Without hitting rock bottom, they didn't quite have the appetite to engage in the necessary bloodletting. But the drum roll of grim opinion poll results means that a return to Plan A - whereby the leader would be challenged next spring - is no longer an option, either.

Blind to the unhappiness around him, Sir Ming continues to insist he will fight the next general election and beyond. He recently told me that no one within the party had said to his face they were unhappy with his leadership, and until that happened he would assume that reports of plots were fictional.

Liberal Democrats are a notoriously cowardly lot, and I took him at his word that he had yet to be visited by the men in yellow coats. But he should have taken me at mine.

Just because he can't see them doesn't mean the knives aren't well and truly out for Ming Campbell. Now they just have to find that magic bullet.

Rosa Prince is political correspondent for the Daily Mirror

Martin Bright is away. Inside Track returns at the end of the month

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time

Getty/Julia Rampen
Show Hide image

View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496