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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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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