Strictly speaking, IDS shies away from snappers

Strait-laced Captain Iain Duncan Smith is a shy cutter. The former Scots Guard serving as Secretary of State for No Work and Lower Pensions was on parade, shoes shining and tie knotted perfectly, for the launch of Marriage Week UK in Commons committee room ten. The organisers had flown in the Italian opera star Gianluca Paganelli to add a dash of glamour and to claim - dubiously, in the opinion of a correspondent with two left feet - that the passion of the tango brings couples together. All went well until IDS was asked to pose for a picture with the singer and a glamorous female dancer. They weren't all in it together when the minister's quick-stepping aides issued a "no photos" edict. Were they worried it would look like an audition for Strictly?

Hoping for a soonish ministerial call-up is David Laws. I gather that Laws, exiled over second home-ophobia since last May after only 16 days in the cabinet, is expecting a call from No 10, should he escape severe censure over rent claimed on a flat and house owned by his partner. A Lib Dem colleague mutters that Laws is turning down most speaking invitations for events from mid-March onwards.

As a one-time TV spin doctor, David Cameron refers to tame journalists as "squared", a phrase with a faintly masonic ring. Defiantly unsquared is Westminster's regional lobby. Cameron surprised political editors by summoning them to Downing Street and announcing “I want something in return" for curbing council freesheets that compete for advertising. "You are all part of the big society," announced the Prime Spinner. If they ever were, they're not now. The hacks, I hear, were horrified that Cameron thought he'd co-opted them into the Big Con.

Absent from the government list of "Not contents" following a one-vote defeat for Labour in the House of Lords over electoral reform was Lord ("Bertie") Denham. A fox-hunting Old Etonian, Maggie Thatcher's chief whip in the politicians' retirement home was spied looking bleary-eyed in a corridor shortly after the narrow reverse. I've yet to ask Denham why he wasn't present, but I believe any chap of 83 is entitled to an afternoon nap in the library.

To Sunderland to watch the footie at the Stadium of Light. No glimpse of the £50,000-a-year signing David Miliband, an Arsenal supporter inexplicably appointed vice-chair of the Wearside club. Mackems, as Sunderland fans are known, don't expect to see him regularly unless the team qualifies for the Europa League. Then, they snigger, he will do the job for which a former foreign secretary was hired - sitting next to the coach driver, reading road maps in Riga, Limassol, Sofia . . .

Nick Clegg's subservient position will be glaring when he and David Cameron visit Cardiff on the same weekend next month. The PM will address the UK-wide Tory party at the SWALEC stadium, home of Glamorgan county cricket. Clegg will speak to Welsh Lib Dems at the Angel Hotel. In
a function room, one up from a telephone booth.

Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide