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3 March 2017

Why some Tory backbenchers secretly wish Jeremy Corbyn was getting a better hearing

Rightly or wrongly, the idea that the Conservatives must fight hard to keep Labour out of Downing Street provokes mirth rather than terror in Tory circles.

By Stephen Bush

When Ed Balls was in the shadow cabinet, pressing the flesh and raising funds for local parties, he liked to help out with the raffle. Why? Because selling tickets gave him the perfect excuse to work the room – and to escape from any awkward conversations.

Not all politicians take so naturally to the task of fundraising. Boris Johnson – for some time the most coveted draw for Conservative MPs looking to excite their local parties – likes to have a plan, and his after-dinner speeches generally follow a tightly written, well-memorised script. During the run-up to the EU referendum, Johnson was finishing a speech when he delivered his usual instruction to forget the party’s divisions and to work hard “to stop a Labour government”. The line, which usually caused solemn silence before the 2015 election, instead triggered an eruption of impromptu and unwelcome laughter in the era of Jeremy Corbyn.

Rightly or wrongly, the idea that the Conservatives must fight hard to keep Labour out of Downing Street provokes mirth rather than terror in Tory circles. The sense that Labour is heading for a historic defeat has only been heightened by the Conservative victory in a by-election in Copeland, a former Labour stronghold in the north-west of England. No governing party has gained a seat in a by-election since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1982.

Despite this, Corbyn’s position as leader is secure. Having been decisively routed twice, the Corbyn-sceptics have decided that discretion is the better part of valour. In the leader’s inner circle, meanwhile, there is no desire to attempt a risky transfer of power. “What’s the alternative?” one loyalist says. “Jeremy resigns and Tom Watson takes over?” The fear is that if Corbyn steps down, Watson would hold on to the post of acting leader for an indefinite period, using the powers of his office to purge the left and re-establish control of the party machinery.

The Corbyn team’s hopes rest on the idea that developing a radical policy platform, coupled with a solid response to the Budget on 8 March, will allow Labour to regain relevance and vitality. It is also keen to play up criticism by the “Blairites” or the media, because the prospect of an internal fight energises its base. Hence John McDonnell’s warning of a “soft coup” being under way.

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Yet talk to any Labour MP outside Corbyn’s circle and the mood is weary resignation. This time last year, Labour MPs were using WhatsApp groups with names such as “Birthday Club” and “Jobcentre Plus” to organise a rebellion. Now, the fatalism is so great that these are mainly used for arranging social events and a form of group therapy. Birthday Club, once a code phrase, is often now devoted to actual birthdays.

Ukip, however, is still in active sedition mode. Its donor Arron Banks is in open conflict with Douglas Carswell, the sole Ukip MP, as is Nigel Farage. Paul Nuttall is notionally the party leader, but he has been  weakened by the failed campaign in Stoke-on-Trent Central.

These two collapses have had some noteworthy effects. For Conservative MPs, it makes dissent unattractive. Instead of being led by David Cameron – ruling in a coalition, with polls predicting defeat at the next election – they must now fall in behind
Theresa May. Barring defeat in a second Scottish referendum, her position is secure. To make an enemy of her, as the former education secretary Nicky Morgan has done, is to make an enemy for the next decade – an unattractive prospect for any ambitious MP.

For that reason, the Prime Minister’s most effective opponents are those she sacked when she came into office, such as Morgan, George Osborne and Michael Gove; and select committee chairs, such as Andrew Tyrie and Sarah Wollaston, who owe their places to the respect of backbenchers.

The other more powerful group of opponents also has nothing to lose: grandees such as Michael Heseltine and John Major, whose speech at Chatham House in London on 27 February took aim at Brexiteers, telling the government to use “a little more charm and a lot less cheap rhetoric”.

Major’s reappearance was a reminder that while the arc of Tory history is long, it bends towards schism over Europe. May’s full-throated embrace of the “hard” – she prefers “clean” – Brexit favoured by the Conservative right has given her breathing room. However, she has little personal loyalty from that faction, most of which wanted Andrea Leadsom to lead the party. The 199 MPs who voted for May and secured the party’s leadership for her were drawn from the party’s left and centre. These old loyalists believe that, once Article 50 has been triggered, the need to reassure the party’s right will ease. That should allow the Prime Minister to strike a more conciliatory note towards our European neighbours, smoothing the path to a better Brexit deal.

It is a triumph of hope over experience. The Tory moderates hoped that Cameron’s surprise general election victory in 2015 would free him from the truculent demands of the right. It never happened. Because of the exigencies of party management, May
is unlikely to escape the clutches of the Brexiteer ultras, even if she wishes to.

In the last parliament, the Eurosceptics were able to point to the threat of Ukip as a way to stiffen Cameron’s backbone, while the moderates gestured to the threat from Ed Miliband. Now, there is a chasm to the Tory party’s left, meaning that the balance of British natural politics is disrupted. Conservative centrists who have never been comfortable arguing with the right on points of principle are now denied the argument of expediency. Corbyn’s perceived weakness prevents not just Labour’s arguments being heard, but those of a significant section of the Tories.

This article appears in the 01 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again