Welcome to the era of no overall control

The leaders’ debates energised what were, in truth, disappointing campaigns for all three main parti

It's all over: the festival of pledges, pratfalls, fumbles and fudges that constitutes a modern British election campaign. And the result is . . . great confusion. Parliament's hung, everyone's lost and the only likely bet is another election not too far away. We are now in possession of the Snark of British politics - a first-past-the-post election with a muddy, proportional representation-type result.

Asked on the BBC at 5am on Friday 7 May who was going to be running the country, the Children's Secretary, Ed Balls, replied that he didn't know for sure, as he had been out of mobile contact for an hour. And that's how it felt as the graphics registered unsatisfactory gains for the Tories, a savage deflation of the Lib Dem soufflé and Labour hanging on in there, despite losing the mandate of a majority.

There were cameos to savour along the way: the former home secretary Jacqui Smith's face, staring at the defeat she knew was coming but still flinching at the blow when it landed; and Gisela Stuart, holding off the Tory advance in Edgbaston. This was a reminder that sometimes - just sometimes - pleasant character and consistent views can triumph over the party machines.

And there was the news that many Friends of Cameron hadn't made it - so, no Annunziata Rees-Mogg and no Notting Hill queen Joanne Cash in the next parliament. Meanwhile, many Tories were just as dismayed to see Zac Goldsmith crowned in Richmond as some in New Labour were to see Balls survive his boundary change.

At the end of it all, we were left watching Gordon Brown re-entering Downing Street and a lot of aerial shots of cars hurtling around with very tired men in the back seats. But we were still no closer to knowing who would govern Britain.

Loose briefs

How did it happen? The Tories entered the campaign having endured two very ropey months. They lost momentum and clarity of message, which was never recovered. A key strategist admitted to me in the early hours of 7 May that there were faults in the "ground war" for seats: "Candidates [were] wandering around loosely briefed and some without even the blue rosette. [There was] a lot of confusion out there."

But what the party was saying was also shrouded in mystery. What exactly was the Conservative offer? It depended whom you asked. Most significantly, David Cameron had what one of his closest aides concedes was a "wandering" message on the economy. A party which had declared that slashing the deficit was a priority softened the edges of its message. The married person's tax allowance, which Cameron had once intended to put at the centre of his pitch for power, was in tatters, reduced from an ambitious attempt to mend "broken Britain" to a forlorn symbol of good intentions.

The "big society", Cameron's big idea, had great potential, but its contours were so vaguely defined that it sounded like awfully hard work on top of our day jobs and the tiresome business of everyday life. At the Battersea manifesto launch, the mood was hopeful but highly nervous. The brief from the top was firm: "No counter-intuitive change messages." In other words, don't lose the core vote to Ukip by talking about saving the planet or being nice to delinquents.

The problem for Cameron was that this was a campaign sculpted around his per­sonality and appeal - and it still didn't put him straight into Downing Street. (And this party, which loves a grudge, will store up that resentment.) The strain on the Tory leader has been immense. He has put on weight in the past few weeks, bemoaning the diet of "sandwiches, coffee and angst" on the road.

The only thrill of the early part of the campaign was the Conservative ploy of doubling back (again) on the priority of deficit reduction - and coming out against the government's planned National Insurance rise. In a battle fought on big ideas, this would have been a detail, but with little else to go on, Labour was boxed in to the "tax on jobs" corner - much to the frustration of that doughty campaigner, John Prescott. He told me of his concerns that the famed New Labour rebuttal machine had gone rusty. "It should have immediately been parried as an attack on health and schools spending. We let them define us far too easily."

The press relied heavily on the leaders' wives for a bit of colour in a campaign painted in shades of grey. The slicker edge of the Tory marketing machine brought us "Web Sam Cameron", showcasing a glowing Sam in a mid-market smock, apparently talking to her open fridge about Dave's
reliability. "He's never let me down." Nice to know.

Poor Sarah Brown tweeted about her daffodils like a Desperate Housewife. Trussed up in high-street attire, she had the tolerant but weary look of a woman doing what she has to do while sensing that disaster loomed. As for Miriam González Durántez, she appeared as a fetching St John the Baptist for her husband, Nick Clegg. Dazzling but unaffected, she won the hearts of the nation's working women by making it clear that she would rather be doing the day job than stomping around key marginals.

None of this mattered, however, once the debates crackled into life. "As of tomorrow," a senior Labour strategist said to me at the time, "nothing you've written earlier will matter." He was right. The refreshing thing about the Cleggster's breakthrough moment was that it was so unexpected that we all thought we had discovered it for ourselves.

It turned out that there was unusual accord. Brown's hug, "I agree with Nick," was intended to open a door to coalition. In the event, it only confirmed Clegg's status as primus inter pares in the widescreen war. His open countenance, informality and conspiratorial tone with the viewers were magnificent. Suddenly, we saw what we had been missing in Westminster's boy next door.

As he walked off the stage, I watched Dave give the Lib Dem leader a congratulatory thump on the back that looked rather more vicious than benign. The rise of Clegg seems especially painful to a Tory leader who has presented himself as the generational change Britain needs. From now on, parents with political ambitions for their offspring will be applying to Clegg's alma mater, Westminster, rather than to Eton.

Would the bubble burst? At Conservative Central Office, formerly bright faces were stricken. I asked one of Cameron's intimates what they would do if their man didn't make it into No 10. "None of us will still be here," he said. "And you'll be calling Liam Fox for quotes on when he's going to run."

That sense of fragility, of living on borrowed time, never left the Tories. But before we got to round three of the debates, a ghastly fate would strike Labour and Brown. Like the fallen heroes of Greek tragedy, he would be the author of his own misfortune.

The b-word

How did a prime minister surrounded by seasoned advisers get it so wrong? The encounter with Gillian Duffy was somewhere between The Wire and The Thick of It - with a touch of Frank Spencer thrown in. Brown's off-the-cuff diagnosis of her as a "bigoted woman" showed that Labour's connection to its core vote had been shattered. After all, Duffy had merely asked where eastern European migrants were "flocking from". Besides the obvious retort, we know what she meant, and the government has never found a straight answer.

The b-word belied Brown's vaunted intention to meet "real people". That said, we all know how easy it is to be caught out by a phone line left open, or a "reply to all" icon clicked on in error. The trouble is, it just would happen to Gordon, wouldn't it? As he put his head in his hands when the tape was played back to him during a radio interview, disdain mingled with sneaking sympathy.

Labour subsequently announced that its vote was "holding up", as if it were a dodgy pair of suspenders. The damage went deeper, however, and the prospect of Brown remaining Prime Minister, even if the coalition arithmetic was favourable to Labour, went down the drain.

The following night, on Thursday 29 April, when the three musketeers crossed swords on television for the last time, we saw Clegg's magic begin to fade, and a sleek, urgent Cameron admit that few people could understand exactly what his "big society" was about (which he somehow presented as a measure of its integrity, rather than an indication that it was a vague muddle of wishes and instincts). Brown, meanwhile, projected his best asset: avid seriousness.

Yet, his had been a weak campaign, not enhanced by his character and lacklustre projection. How must Brown's persistent tormentor Charles Clarke feel at being ousted in Norwich South while the leader clings on? I think we can guess. Out on the stump, Brown seemed grumpy, exhausted and tense from the start, overcompensating with the fixed grin of a man hiding vast deposits of despair and ill-feeling.

In the final week of the campaign, I went to Eltham in south London with Prescott, who was grumbling about Labour's poor preparation and its failure to launch a dry run of the campaign during the European elections in June 2009.

Peter Mandelson texted to congratulate Prezza on racking up 5,000 miles on the campaign trail. As he did so, Ed Balls was tantalising NS readers with the prospect of co-operation with the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament, while Peter Hain embraced it outright. Prescott's fury was as loud and immense as the man himself: "What's this piddling about with the electorate?"

In the end, there wasn't a lot of piddling about; just a panicked retreat, as Clegg candidly put it, to what people already knew. In that regard, Britain is a conservative nation. But this election has also shown that it is not an overwhelmingly Conservative one.

The Prime Minister's statement outside No 10 on 7 May was pure Robo-Gordon: you can deny him a majority and fail to give him a mandate as Labour leader, but he won't give up. One thing was for sure: he would have to be hosed out of Downing Street.

Later, Cameron emerged with a lengthy tract offering something called "confidence and supply" to the Liberal Democrats. He would agree to remove some of the more controversial Tory policies in return for Clegg supplying support. Lib Dems may consider this the equivalent of the ham-and-eggs joint venture proposed by the chicken to the pig. Clegg at least started by giving the impression he would do anything to avoid moving in with him. The chemistry is all wrong.

“We'll end up messing around with that Liberal bloke who's almost a Tory," Prescott prophesied. And it turns out he may have been right. Welcome to the era of no overall control - of almost everything.

Anne McElvoy is political columnist of the London Evening Standard and a regular presenter of "Night Waves" on Radio 3.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope

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Good riddance to Boris – but the Tory party still needs to find a unifying leader

With Boris gone, Theresa May and Michael Gove are serious contenders for the crown.

UPDATE:  From the moment Michael Gove decided to run for the Conservative leadership Boris Johnsons days were numbered. This is particularly true because of the typically unequivocal comment that Gove made about Johnsons leadership capabilities or lack of them in his announcement. For Johnson has led a remarkably charmed life in both politics and journalism in recent years. Reality has finally caught up with him. It was always going to be the case that if Gove stood many who had pledged their allegiance to Johnson would, because of this lack of leadership qualities, think again. The inevitable has now happened, and Johnson, for once, has accepted reality.

Michael Gove appears, at the eleventh hour, to have learned something about Boris Johnson that anyone who has worked with him either in journalism or politics could have told him years ago: that Johnson is entirely unreliable. The leaked email in which Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, warned him of the assurances he needed to get from Johnson before pledging himself as the key supporter in his campaign turns out to have been the writing on the wall for a clear run for Johnson. Word was swirling round Westminster after the email was leaked that Johnson appeared to have offered the same senior cabinet post – believed to have been the Treasury – to more than one person in return for support. Perhaps this was down to incompetence rather than dishonesty. Gove has made his own judgement, and it is, for an intelligent and serious man, an inevitable one.

Many Brexiteers, who feel that someone who shared their view should end up leading the Tory party, will be delighted by Gove’s decision. There was deep unease among many of them about the idea of a showman rather than a statesman inevitably ending up in Downing Street. What Gove will need to do now is to persuade colleagues who had gone behind Johnson because they did not want Theresa May to shift behind him. Some of Johnson’s supporters caused enormous surprise by their decision – such as Sir Nicholas Soames, who spent the referendum campaign denouncing Johnson on his Twitter feed – and they are not natural bedfellows of his. One Tory MP told me before Gove’s decision to stand that a group of “sensible” Tories had accepted the inevitability of a Johnson victory and had decided to get around him to try to keep him on the straight and narrow. The view that Johnson is unstoppable has now been tested, and those who had made the leap to support him may now well leap back.

Following Theresa May’s very assured launch of her campaign, which radiated statesmanship and sincerity, the Brexiteers need to ask themselves what sort of candidate is going to provide the best challenge to her, for she is clearly formidable. Given the choice between a volatile buffoon taking her on or someone who is more level-headed and serious doing so, the latter must inevitably be the best option. Johnson never looked like a unifying figure, and certainly not one it was easy for rational people to imagine leading the country in an international context.

Gove’s decision not to support Johnson does not merely withdraw his personal support. It will withdraw the support of many who were prepared, reluctantly, to follow his lead and join the Johnson campaign. It has a parallel in history, which was William Hague’s decision to run on his own account instead of supporting Michael Howard in the 1997 contest after the party’s annihilation by Tony Blair. Hague won, and turned out to be a hapless leader. Gove is made of heavier metal and the party is in less perilous circumstances, so the outcome for him, should he win, ought to be better.

In the past few days a considerable portion of the Tory party has taken leave of its senses. In such a condition, envisaging Johnson as its leader was easy. Sanity and calm are now prevailing. The Brexiteers in the party – or at least that group of them resolute that they cannot have a Remainer as leader can now reflect on whether they want an act or a politician to become prime minister. At least, thanks to Mr Gove, they now have a choice.

The Johnson phenomenon

Once upon a time, often within hours of a prime minister resigning, a “magic circle” of Tory grandees would decide after “soundings” whom to send to Buckingham Palace to kiss hands as the new man. Now, the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers has sought to do what it can to emulate the process, fast-tracking the election of David Cameron’s successor so that he or she is in place by 9 September, and ignoring calls for a period of wider reflection on whom the party needs to take it forward through the uncharted waters of negotiating an exit with the European Union. Longer consideration may have been helpful, given that the party is choosing not merely its leader, but the next prime minister.

It soon appeared the main fight would be between Boris Johnson and Theresa May. Jeremy Hunt proposed himself as a “second referendum” candidate, even though the Tory party in particular wants another plebiscite about as much as it would like to put its collective head in a mincer. There was talk of two lesser cabinet ministers, Stephen Crabb and Sajid Javid, presenting a “joint bid”, even though such a concept is unknown to the Conservative constitution; and others were floating around the margins. The tumult reflects the hysterical state of mind in the party: no one in Cameron’s inner circle expected the British public to disobey orders, including, one starts to imagine, Johnson. It is only the preposterous events in the Labour Party that have stopped the Tories from seeming to be completely out of control.

It has become Tory party lore that the favourite never wins, on the precept that he who wields the knife never ends up wearing the crown. Many of the Tory MPs believed nothing could prevent their colleagues voting in sufficient numbers to put Johnson in the second and final round of the contest, the one in which all paid-up members may vote. And if he got there, they felt, the outcome was even less in doubt: he would win.

Predicting this will happen and wanting it to happen are, of course, not the same thing. A distressed Tory MP told me he expected Labour sympathisers to join his party to vote for Johnson, rather as mischievous Tories joined Labour to elect Jeremy Corbyn. The rules, however, forbid such last-minute purchases of a vote: yet the sentiment shows what an equally substantial group of Tory MPs thought of Johnson’s capabilities, and explains why the anyone-but-Boris movement sprang into action the instant Cameron ran up the white flag. They knew that, for all Johnson’s failings, and there are many, he has the entertainer’s knack of making people love him. Sadly – and this is the part his adoring public doesn’t see – things can be very different when he enters his dressing room and starts to take off the make-up. As Sir Alan Duncan said forthrightly last weekend, there is the small matter of Johnson lacking the gravitas and experience to be a credible prime minister, something MPs should have the wit to take into account even if the party in the country at large does not.

The Johnson phenomenon is not the least reason why even some of Cameron’s most consistent critics did not call for him to resign if he lost the referendum. The more time the Tory party had to consider Johnson as a potential leader, and what that entailed, the better. Some MPs are angry that Cameron did not take immediate responsibility for cleaning up the mess he had helped make and preside over the exit negotiations. His colleagues feel he simply couldn’t be bothered, which is consistent with the often idle way he ran both his opposition and the government – an idleness that prevented him putting any contingency plan in place. The grand gesture, the great claim and the sweep of rhetoric are very arresting, and take little time. Following through is harder: but Cameron has a long record of not considering the consequences of words and actions, and this debacle for him is the ultimate, and most spectacular, example.

The pessimism that Johnson’s detractors felt about stopping him rested in what they knew and saw of the self-interest of their more bovine colleagues. The first concern of one group is to back the winner, and they came to think that would be Johnson (something with the status, in those circumstances, of a self-fulfilling prophecy). They also thought that should Labour find a new leader and become a serious opposition, Johnson was the man most likely to win an election. Whether that would come next spring – if the new leader sought a new mandate as Gordon Brown did not in 2007 – or in 2020, as the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act decrees, is a separate but important question. Johnson’s acolytes let it be known he would not call an early poll. He (or any other leader) would be absolutely constitutionally justified in not doing so. More to the point, you do not plot from the womb to become the Queen’s first minister only to risk chucking away the key to the Downing Street drinks cabinet after a few weeks. However, a weakened Labour Party may prove an irresistible target, and Tories recall how history would have been different if Gordon Brown had gone to the country in the autumn of 2007, as many urged him to do.

The press – and not just on the left – could well have given Johnson a hard time. His baroque private life has exhausted its capacity to shock, but there is scope to scrutinise his record of underachievement as mayor of London; or Michael Howard’s sacking him for lying; or the Times sacking him for making up quotations (from his godfather) in a story; or his offering to assist his old schoolfriend Darius Guppy in having a journalist who had disobliged Guppy beaten up. 

The manoeuvring May

Theresa May’s ambitions have been barely concealed. She has been “on manoeuvres” since the 2015 general election. She worked out that the best way to manoeuvre during the referendum campaign was to say nothing, to avoid becoming a divisive figure. Aside from some rare moments of half-hearted support for Remain, that is exactly what she did. Had she gone the other way, the leadership contest might have seemed closer, because her seniority and experience would have matched Johnson’s charisma. As it was, until Johnson pulled out, the best her colleagues believed she could hope for, barring some dramatic development, was to come second. A Times poll on Tuesday said that Tory voters preferred her to Johnson, which had the smell of accuracy about it. Activists – those with a vote – are a different matter. They appear in no mood at the moment to elect a Remainer.

Yet they are in some measure in the mood to elect a unifier. For all his attempts at sober statesmanship since the vote, Johnson (given his past) would have had to stretch credulity even more than usual to convince as one of those. The anyone-but-Boris movement has been motivated by the list of his perceived offences and character defects. Few believe he would have plumped for Leave had he thought it would lose: Johnson’s years on the rubber chicken circuit, and his mailbag from Telegraph readers in the provinces, made him more aware than most of his metropolitan colleagues of the true nature of public feeling outside the bubble. He is seen as utterly flexible in terms of principle: and, from the nature of his campaign rhetoric, as disloyal, cynical and lazy. Critics recall the number of deputy mayors (seven at one point) he required to do his last job. He is widely considered untrustworthy.

Perhaps he could have unified activists who seem near universally to admire his carefully manufactured persona: he would have found it harder to unify the parliamentary party, and would probably require a resounding general election victory before doing so. Even then, doubts born of years of witnessing his buffoonery and prevarication would be hard to allay.

The unifiers

MPs felt that two other Brexiteers had far better credentials as unifiers. The most obvious was Michael Gove, whom some tried to persuade to stand; but until today Gove had signalled his willingness to throw in his lot with Johnson.

The other increasingly discussed name in the days after the referendum was Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister and, before that, economic secretary to the Treasury. Many even in her own party never thought of her as a potential leader until recent weeks: but these were weeks in which she showed her key virtues. She is intelligent and capable. She had a long career in business before entering government, and presents a happy contrast to ministers who spent their lives as special advisers before gracing the back benches. Leadsom is deeply principled but also reasonable: she abstained in the vote on same-sex marriage because she did not want to show a lack of respect to homosexuals and lesbians who wished to solemnise their relationships, but she could not support the notion because of her religious views. Remainers consider her to have performed uniformly well in debates and television interviews during the EU campaign, because she avoided personal attacks, spurious claims and wild threats.

She is popular with her colleagues. However, if she has let her name go forward she will start from the back of the field. It would require the sort of organisation that enabled Mrs Thatcher to beat Ted Heath in 1975 if she were to pull this off. However, should Johnson implode during this campaign, and she had become a candidate, she would be fabulously well placed to pick up his voters.

May would seem to be way ahead as the Remain candidate, but will have to earn that position in the hustings that will run over the summer. The dark horse is Stephen Crabb, who replaced Iain Duncan Smith at Work and Pensions, in league with Sajid Javid, a secret Leaver who called it wrongly and who is now trying to salvage his future. A self-deprecating man from a humble background and with few enemies, Crabb, who was previously Welsh secretary, reminds me of John Major, who was brought into the cabinet and rose rapidly. In a leadership campaign held in the middle of a parliament, Major won and became prime minister, trading heavily on a backstory of his unprivileged upbringing. He may be the man May must beat.

George Osborne has ruled himself out but remains relevant. He wants to carry on in government and, like the overgrown student politician he is, may be about to make an accommodation with those he has denounced for months in order to continue to hold a senior post. Also, not least because of Cameron’s laziness and casual attitude towards his party, he had exercised a substantial and growing influence over patronage and especially over senior government appointments. He had made a point of getting to know MPs on the way up, not least because he expected to be prime minister and wanted to be sure he had a clientele of loyalists to support him. He was starting to appoint his ministerial team, in effect, before becoming prime minister.

Osborne’s prospects have crashed, but his machine remains, for the moment, intact. If he has chosen wisely, he has a group of loyalists whom he can deploy in support of the candidate he chooses. However, now he can be of no use to his clients, it will be interesting to see whether they take the blindest bit of notice of him.

There was talk of Johnson making him foreign secretary, which would show an advanced sense of humour, given the role that person might have to play in the exit negotiations. Gove, if he had thrown in his lot with Johnson, might have ended up as chancellor.

The party is so fractious that the next nine weeks could provide a roller coaster: any talk of going back on the idea of strict border controls, for instance – something Johnson hinted at – could cause huge turbulence. I suspect we are about to find that conducting a leadership contest at any time is a project laced with tension; to conduct one in a climate of scarcely concealed hysteria is not least why anything could yet happen.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph

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 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies