Ed Miliband and David Cameron during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, on June 4, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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There's no gratitude in politics - why the recovery might not save the Tories

If the debate moves on to more fertile Labour territory such as public services the Conservatives will likely struggle.

One of the big political surprises in Britain’s history came less than two months after VE Day, when the triumphant war leader, Winston Churchill, ran for re-election against the cerebral and relatively uncharismatic Clement Attlee. Churchill was defeated in a landslide. Historians mostly agree that whilst Churchill’s wartime record was respected, voters, and particularly returning soldiers, trusted Attlee’s Labour Party to provide the jobs, healthcare and welfare state that would make the peace worth living in. The UK’s recent struggles have been economic. But just as the ungrateful voters of 1945 turfed out Churchill, so the voters of 2015 could do the same to their own (economic) saviours, David Cameron and George Osborne.

The UK’s recovery is now in its second year, but it has yet to have a significant effect on the Conservatives’ popularity: in the latest poll their share is 28 per cent, 4 per cnet behind the Labour Party, which has maintained a similar lead since May 2013. One potential explanation is the stagnation in the real incomes of voters, as inflation has outstripped wage growth. That trend looks to be coming to an end, however, potentially ushering in a year of real wage growth coupled with a booming housing market, which could lead many voters to feel wealthier than at any point since the last election.

That will likely aid the Conservatives’ standing heading into 2015 and the polls are likely to narrow (as they do in the run-up to most general elections). But perhaps the Conservatives should be careful what they wish for. James Carville’s oft-misquoted campaign memo, "the economy, stupid", does not refer to an immutable law of politics. The economy is often the most important issue in elections, but by no means always. Indeed, when the economy was doing well, as it was in the UK from '96 -'07, other issues like healthcare and education took on the greatest salience (Chart 5).

Economic optimism in the UK is now at its highest level since records began in 1979. The salience of the economy as an issue is falling fast, whilst that of the NHS and education, Labour’s strongest suits, is rising. The significant lead the Conservative Party has on economic management looks likely to endure in the absence of an unforeseen downturn before the next election. But it also looks likely to become less important to the result.

The big battles of the next election will be fought over control of the agenda. If the health of the economy continues to fade as an issue and the debate moves on to more fertile Labour territory like the provision of public services then the Conservatives will likely struggle to overtake Ed Miliband’s party. The latest debacle over extremism in schools is just the kind of distraction that plays into Labour’s hands and just the kind the Tories have been instructed by campaign manager Lynton Crosby to avoid.

The saving graces for the Conservatives have long been assumed to be Ed Miliband’s weak personal brand and his party’s lingering association with economic failure. Yet the Conservatives’ own vulnerabilities look just as concerning. Cameron’s personal brand is strong but his party's remains stubbornly off-putting to much of the electorate. Forty per cent say they would never vote Conservative against 33 per cent who would not vote Labour. The Conservatives face a huge disadvantage under the current electoral system, which could see Labour become the largest party even if it loses the popular vote by up to 3 per cent. And of course there’s Ukip, which, while it takes votes from all parties, stands to be significantly more damaging to the Conservatives than to anyone else.

The European elections (where Ukip came first) probably showed the crest of the party’s popularity, at least for the next year or so, but the local elections, held on the same day, indicated that the party could have a disruptive effect in a variety of key swing seats, particularly in Essex and Thurrock, where Labour must win seats to become the biggest party.

A "super poll" of swing constituencies commissioned by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft just before the local elections indicated that high Ukip shares in areas like Thurrock would gift those seats to Labour, resulting in a majority for the party of 83. It should be noted, however, that a similar poll held in 2009 projected a Conservative majority of 70 which never materialised.

So what to conclude? More positive economic news should benefit the Conservatives, but could well prove a double-edged blade if voters conclude that it’s safe to switch to the party they prefer with cherished public services. Between now and the election, the Conservatives will do all they can to ensure the economy remains foremost in people’s minds, which is why the chart below is a key one to watch. If Labour can succeed in shifting the debate into other areas, as it previously accomplished with its proposal to freeze energy prices, then David Cameron may soon find himself joining the ranks of respected ex-prime ministers.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent investment consultancy

Chart 5: Most important issues facing the UK

Source: ASR Ltd. / Ipsos Mori

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.