Rudyard Kipling’s “The Beginning of the Armadillos” is the story of the friendship between a tortoise and a hedgehog. The tortoise, Slow-and-Solid, can’t curl but can swim; the hedgehog, Stickly-Prickly, can curl up into a ball but can’t swim. Those weaknesses make them easy prey for a hungry jaguar, and to escape him, they emulate one another’s strengths. In doing so, they become armadillos.
Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn might not be friends but, like Kipling’s animals, they share the same problem: neither did well enough to win the last election. They also share a diagnosis: the answer lies in emulating their opponent’s strengths. Labour was seen as compassionate but feckless, while the Conservatives were seen as competent but cruel. A focus group study by the strategy consultancy BritainThinks summed up the divide: voters would choose May to look after their houses while they were away, but would prefer their family pet to be left in the care of Corbyn.
Labour sees tackling its problem as a task of two parts. First, it must sharpen up the shadow cabinet’s ability to expose and undermine the Conservatives at Westminster. That will help with its second objective: eroding the Tory reputation for competence. To that end, two new demands have been made on the schedules of parliamentary advisers – the opposition equivalent of special advisers, or “pads” as they are known at Westminster. Every Tuesday morning, they must attend a round-table meeting, usually chaired by David Prescott, the son of the former deputy prime minister John Prescott. He is one of Corbyn’s spin doctors, and that meeting covers messaging and lines to take. A Thursday afternoon meeting with Andrew Fisher – Corbyn’s policy chief, the author of the 2017 manifesto and the man to whom all Labour’s parliamentary advisers report – tackles big-picture issues. It often features presentations from either the leader’s office or the relevant policy adviser.
The value of the meetings is disputed. Pads generally believe that one of the meetings is useful and the other is a waste of time, but they are divided as to which is which. Supporters of the Tuesday meeting say that it forces even underperforming shadow ministerial teams to do enough work to have something to talk about every week. Its critics regard it as a talking shop. Fans of the Thursday meeting regard it as an informative insight into how the party will navigate set-piece events such as the EU Withdrawal Bill and the Budget; its detractors see it as an exercise in navel-gazing.
Who’s right? It’s hard to say, but the meetings seem to be making the opposition work more coherently. At the start of 2017, Labour’s shadow transport team irritated MPs and their staff by failing to provide the usual set of leaflets and posters for the party’s annual campaign against rail fare rises. In 2018, it went off without a hitch. The shadow cabinet member in charge – the transport spokesman, Andy McDonald – remains unchanged, so it seems likely that the back-room changes are having some impact.
The long-term limitation on Labour’s self-improvement is that Corbyn is reluctant to conduct a wide-ranging ministerial reshuffle. A more ruthless leadership would regard only three figures as having performed outstandingly enough to be safe: Angela Rayner at education, Jon Ashworth at health and the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry. (The core Corbyn-supporting trio of John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and the strategist Jon Trickett are essential to the project for other reasons.)
What about the Conservatives? When the party conducted its post-mortem of the 2017 election, it found that the much-derided manifesto and Theresa May’s conduct on the campaign trail were not the only problems. There was another surprising source of pain: the Tories’ approach to animal welfare. Their most-noticed policy was not the “dementia tax” or Brexit but May’s commitment to a free vote on overturning the fox-hunting ban. One of the most popular stories of the campaign – shared more than 70,000 times – was on the left-wing website Evolve Politics, which has a large Facebook audience. Its headline shouted: “Theresa May’s Tory manifesto SCRAPS THE BAN on elephant ivory sales after bowing to millionaire antique lobbyists”.
If David Cameron hugged huskies, May and her newly emollient environment secretary, Michael Gove, are now safeguarding foxes, protecting elephants and embracing the beavers released in the Forest of Dean. The promise of a free vote on the reintroduction of fox-hunting is expected to be abandoned. May has also dropped her triumphalist pro-Brexit rhetoric and begun to talk more about the anxieties of Remainers.
The difficulty is that these shifts in tone are undermined by a fondness for culture wars further down the food chain. The immigration minister, Brandon Lewis, used the quiet pre-Christmas period to announce a victory for the Sun’s long-standing campaign to restore British passports to their old blue colour after Brexit. The universities minister, Jo Johnson, has appointed the right-wing polemicist Toby Young to his new university regulator.
Unfortunately, while most Tory MPs know that the voters they need to win a majority in the Commons are young, liberal and ethnically diverse, they also know that the members who will decide the next party leader are old, illiberal and white. Just as the job security of the shadow cabinet is impeding Labour’s attempt to become a more formidable opposition, the unofficial leadership race in the Conservative Party makes throwing red meat to right-wingers a constant temptation. For now, the jaguar might be lying in wait, but an armadillo is unlikely to emerge at Westminster
This article appears in the 03 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old