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Go fourth

John Prescott, Alastair Campbell, Richard Caborn and Glenys Kinnock call for the party and its suppo

EXCLUSIVEIf the polls and pundits are to be believed, within two years or so, David Cameron will be prime minister and the Conservatives back in power.

People should cast their minds back to the mid-Nineties, when the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock held commanding poll leads and won great by-election victories. The same lesson is there for both parties in the subsequent re-election of the Tories in 1992. For the Tories: not to assume that poll leads automatically translate to seats. For Labour: never to give up, never to bow down before fatalism or the self-serving hope of opponents in a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The only real answer to the pollsters' question, "If there were a general election tomorrow, how would you vote?", is: "There isn't one." A lot can happen between now and then.

There is, however, one enormous difference between 1992 and now, and it is this difference to which Labour has to be particularly alert. In that election, and the one which followed in 1997, the big issue was the opposition party, Labour.

Were we fit to govern? Had we changed sufficiently to win back the trust of the people? Had we really thought through the policies, and did the sums add up?

A combination of a highly effective political organisation, and a media that largely followed its strategic lead, ensured that the only party under real intense scrutiny was ours.

Yet now, with the Tories well ahead in the polls, when it comes to real scrutiny, it is as though they didn't really exist.

Labour needs to rediscover the passion that gave us victory in the first place, to defend our record with pride

If most of us were to stop people at random in the street, and ask them to name three things that David Cameron would do as prime minister, it is not an insult to the public to suggest most would struggle to answer.

Likewise, most people would struggle to name more than two or three current members of the shadow cabinet. The people who would run our schools, hospitals, roads, armed forces are virtual unknowns outside the Westminster village.

This is not merely the result of a media bored with the story of Labour in power and keen for a new set of characters to populate the soap opera that passes for media debate on policy. It is also the result of a deliberate Conservative strategy to avoid policy, avoid facing the difficult decisions that politics ultimately requires you to make, and go along with the media game of making Gordon Brown the only story in town, preferably with as negative a slant as can be found.

There is no point in moaning, however. We have to do something about it. Not just the Prime Minister, not just the cabinet or the MPs, this includes anyone who understands that Britain is best served by a fourth-term Labour government, not a return to a Conservative Party scared to bring forward policies of substance because its MPs and members have not changed sufficiently to embrace anything other than the style and froth Mr Cameron is very good at.

That is why we are urging people to sign up to a new campaigning organisation, Go Fourth - Campaign for a Labour Fourth Term - a campaign dedicated to supporting the fight for the re-election of a Labour government and committed to the same principles and values that have won us an unprecedented three consecutive victories.

We passionately believe this party needs to get off the back foot, out of its despondency, and start campaigning on our proud record of government so we can take the fight to the Tories.

It's not going to be easy - we need to work harder than we've ever worked, campaign better than we've ever campaigned and reach out wider than we ever have.

To this end, the campaign's main aims will be to:

Proudly defend the record of the Labour government since 1997;

Actively support the government in promoting policies that will build on our successes;

Encourage greater participation in the Labour Party;

Highlight the damage a Conservative government will do to Britain.

Anyone who supports these four aims, and who believes Britain's best interests will be maintained by a Labour not a Tory government, is welcome to join our Campaign for a Labour Fourth Term. We are looking beyond politicians, or those who are normally active in the political debate, to a wider support. When we launch in six weeks' time, we'll spell out just how we can all come together to take on the Conservatives.

There were those who believed, when Labour lost the 1992 election - having been so far ahead in the polls, only to see that lead erode - that we would never get power again. Five years later, we were elected in a landslide.

Our opponents then pointed out that Labour had never secured two full successive terms in power.

When we won another landslide, some felt it would not be possible to win a third term. Yet, even after all the difficulties raised in the debate over Iraq, Labour did win a third term.

A fourth term, once unthinkable, remains a real prospect. More than that, it is vital to the future of Britain.

The Tory party has had to accept many of the changes Labour has made for the country. But while Britain has changed for the better, we should never forget that the Tories opposed the changes needed to make those improvements. And any analysis of their policy prospectus shows an unchanged party that has little understanding of the role of government in helping people face the challenges of modern life.

"Time for a change" is their only cry. But change to what? That is a question that the Campaign for a Labour Fourth Term will help the country answer.

The change would be to an outmoded, old-fashioned, elitist party determined to take Britain back to the days when the country was run by and for a privileged few, not for the many.

We are proud of what Labour has achieved for Britain. And we are determined to do what we can to stop the country going back to the Conservatives.

Rightly in politics, there is an enormous focus on the party leaders. But the fight cannot be won by them alone. Labour needs to rediscover the passion that gave us victory in the first place, to defend our record with pride, promote our policy agenda with confidence, knowing that we are alone in having thought through policies to meet the great challenges of our time.

Now is the time to get back on the campaign trail. So let's get knocking on the doors, fighting on the web and tackling the Conservatives through the media.

The Tories are still the same old Tories; offering the same quack prescriptions and easy options. We've beaten them three times already, so let's go for a fourth and stop them gaining a victory they have done absolutely nothing to deserve.

So, if you believe in fairness, equality and social justice, it's time to stand up and be counted.

It's time for you to join us in our Campaign for a Labour Fourth Term.

John Prescott is the former deputy prime minister; Alastair Campbell is the former director of communications and strategy for the Prime Minister's Office; Richard Caborn is MP for Sheffield Central; Glenys Kinnock MEP represents Wales in the European Parliament

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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