Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Conservatives hope to copy what Labour did right – if they can ever agree what that was

Tory MPs are in favour of at least one type of borrowing: from their opponents.

The Conservative Party is a lot like Facebook: ever-present, essentially uncool, and blue. And, like Facebook, it owes much of its continuing vitality to its ruthlessness in buying up or simply copying its most dangerous rivals. But the difficulty is that Conservative MPs can’t agree on what it is that makes Jeremy Corbyn dangerous: his luck or his judgement.

Those who favour luck point to Theresa May’s maladroit campaign. Its flaws have been well-aired, but anyone hoping for a repeat listening has only to give the average Conservative politician a gentle nudge. For supporters of David Cameron, the problem arose from a deliberate attempt to move away from the Cameroon playbook. The party offended elderly voters and alienated the socially liberal. In May’s haste to take credit for the expected election victory she all but banished Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, from the campaign trail.

And while Labour might have pledged to maintain Trident after the election, the contest was defined by unilateral disarmament of another kind: the Conservative Party’s argument for austerity, the drumbeat to its successes in 2010 and 2015.

Lingering irritation at the conduct of the campaign from both Cameron and his friends is one reason why May’s phone call to her predecessor, seeking his support in striking a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, made its way to the Times on 3 July. For the Tory right, the problem, as strategist Lynton Crosby is said to have told friends, was that “a Conservative manifesto should have some Conservative policies”. May’s borrowing of Ed Miliband’s key themes meant anyone seeking authentic conservatism stayed at home. That she also aped Miliband’s robotic appearances on the campaign trail only compounded the problem.

What unites the right, regardless of their politics, is the belief that normal service will resume once a new leader – provided it is the right leader – is in place. Corbyn got lucky once – now they must make sure he doesn’t get lucky a second time. It was partly that way of thinking that Damian Green, May’s closest political ally and now her de facto deputy, set himself against with his speech to the liberal Conservative think tank Bright Blue. He said the party must “think hard, work hard and change hard” to win back its majority. The speech was partially, of course, about boosting the Prime Minister’s hopes of staying. If the party’s problem is bigger than its leader, why shouldn’t she hang on, at least for a while longer?

However, it is not only Green who believes that Corbyn’s success owed itself to more than May’s gaffe-prone bid for a bigger parliamentary majority – though the campaign is still a subject of considerable rancour among that group. (It is next-to-impossible to find anyone willing to defend the conduct of the Conservative campaign, though there is still a determined effort among the key participants to pin the blame on someone else.) In cabinet, the group is represented by Education Secretary Justine Greening, who came within 1,554 votes of losing her Putney seat; Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary; Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary; and Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary. They see the election result as the consequence of “austerity fatigue” – a waning appetite for continuing cuts after seven years of fiscal restraint.

Their biggest demand is an end to the public sector pay cap, which has held rises at below inflation since the Conservatives took office. They are opposed by a smaller group of ministers who believe that the Conservatives must re-establish control of the economic narrative by arguing for continuing financial restraint against a spendthrift Labour Party.

It was in support of that smaller group that Hammond’s 3 July speech to the Confederation of British Industry was delivered. Hammond is politically lonely because he is the cabinet’s only real Thatcherite: a supporter of both fiscal retrenchment and the European single market, both hallmarks of Thatcher in her time in office, but the latter of which has been abandoned by many of her latter-day devotees.

In the cabinet, Hammond’s hawkishness on public spending sets him apart from his pro-European allies, but his favourable view of Europe means that the cabinet’s deficit watchers will only ever regard him as an ally of convenience.

His bigger problem isn’t politics, however, but maths. The appetite among nervous backbenchers for bigger cuts was already at a low ebb when the election was called. Now, with their numbers reduced, the caucus for a greater pace of deficit reduction is lower still. That the price of staying in office is a £1.5bn deal with the DUP only compounds the problem. The DUP’s bounty is peanuts next to the £773bn that the British government spent last year across the UK, but it hands Labour a powerful political weapon. Halting school funding cuts – one deal with the DUP. An end to the public sector pay freeze – four deals with the DUP.

Tory MPs were skittish about further cuts, but the prospect of voting for more pain for their constituents while sending more money to Northern Ireland has only deepened the sense that a gentler pace of deficit reduction will be needed by the autumn. The row will then turn to how to pay for this – while Conservative MPs have come around to higher spending, there is not, as yet, a turn to greater affection for higher taxes.

However, the long Tory history of successful regeneration is why optimistic Conservative MPs are in favour of at least one type of borrowing: from their opponents, as they have done throughout their history. But while they cannot agree on what to borrow, let alone who to lead them, optimism will remain a minority position in the Tory tribe. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.