By Harry Phibbs
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David Cameron was interviewed on the Today programme this morning by James Naughtie. He said the coalition would last the course until 2015 and that there were "big, bold reforms" to come. He also said that the date of the in/out EU referendum, in 2017, would not be changed. Nor would there be more than one referendum.
“Let me say, this policy, it doesn’t matter the pressure I come under from outside the Conservative party, or in Europe, or inside the Conservative party, this policy isn’t going to change."
However the important thing about the interview was not what he said but the way he said it. He sounded steady, calm, reasonable. Genuinely relaxed. Indeed Mr Naughtie seized on this - wasn't our Prime Minister "too relaxed." Better to be criticised for that than for sounding rattled.
Mr Cameron avoided being petulent or insulting to supporters of UKIP or opponents of gay marriage. However he also explaining powerfully why he did feel the issue mattered:
Here's the text of the email that David Cameron sent to Conservative activists last night, following the "swivel-eyed" row:
I’ve been a member of the Conservative Party for 25 years. Some time after I joined I became Chairman of my local branch and was one of the volunteers dedicated to getting Conservatives elected to the local council. Since then I have met thousands and thousands of party members. We’ve pounded the pavements together, canvassed together and sat in make-shift campaign headquarters together, from village halls to front rooms. We have been together through good times and bad. This is more than a working relationship; it is a deep and lasting friendship.
Ours is a companionship underpinned by what we believe: that everyone should be able to get on in life if they’re willing to work hard; that we look after those who cannot help themselves; that it’s family and community and country that matter; that a dose of common sense is worth more than a ton of dry political theory; that Britain is a great and proud nation that can be greater still.
That’s why I am proud to lead this party. I am proud of what you do. And I would never have those around me who sneered or through otherwise. We are a team, from the parish council to the local association to Parliament, and I never forget it.
Does that mean we will agree on everything? Of course not. The Conservative Party has always been a broad church – one which contains different views and opinions – and we must remain so today. But there is also much we must do together. We can shout from the roof-tops about how far we’ve already some. The deficit has been cut by a third. We’ve seen 1.25 million new jobs created in our private sector. 24 million working people have had their income tax cut.
And we can be clear about where we are going, too. We are engaged in a great fight to rebalance our economy, to bring excellence back to our schools, to fix the welfare system. And yes, we have a policy on Europe that is right for our country. Amid all the debate, remember this: it is our party that has committed to an in-out referendum on Europe by the end of 2017. Not Labour, not the Liberal Democrats, but the Conservatives who are committed to giving the British people their say.
So to those reading this, here is my message: there will always be criticism from the sidelines. But we must remember what this Party has always been about: acting in the national interest. Our task today is to clear up Labour’s mess and make Britain stand tall again.
We have a job to do for our country – and we must do it together.
This weekend of the “mad, swivel-eyed loons” row will swiftly be followed by Commons debate on the same-sex marriage bill. Will Conservative MPs accept Lord Feldman's denial, view the incident as yet another instance of media irresponsbility, and look more sympathetically on the measure - on which David Cameron has staked part of his political reputation? Or will the report only harden the opposition to it - since some will conclude, regardless of what they think of Lord Feldman's denial, that his words represent what Downing Street thinks anyway?
The answer will become clear over the next few days. What is evident this morning, however, is that what Cabinet Ministers do and say about the bill will be watched very closely indeed. The Sunday Telegraph confirms that Chris Grayling will support amendments that aim to protect people who work in the public sector and believe that marriage is between men and women - and that Owen Paterson and David Jones will oppose the bill at Third Reading. The logical extension of Philip Hammond's pointed remarks on Question Time last week is that he should, too.
By Andrew Gimson
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UKIP has reached its highest level ever in an opinion poll: 20% in the Opinium/Observer poll. A ComRes poll for the Independent on Sunday and Sunday Mirror has UKIP on 19%, while ICM in the Sunday Telegraph puts the party on 15%.
The three established parties are all in the doldrums. Taking the three polls in the same order as I have used for UKIP, Labour is at 37%, 35% and 32%; the Conservatives at 27%, 29% and 29%; while the Lib Dems find themselves on 7%, 8% and 16%.
This is a bad time for the Tories to be preoccupied by the question of whether someone in the high command has referred to the party's footsoldiers as "swivel-eyed loons". Nor can Labour feel happy to be recording such modest leads over the Conservatives as 10%, 6% and a mere 3%.
There are activists in every Party whose eyes aren't entirely steady in their sockets. And swivel eyes, to mangle a metaphor, cut both ways - see here. But most Conservative members are normal enough. Tory activists are not untypical of the class which, if one takes a romantic view, has been the backbone of England for centuries - and, even if one takes a prosaic one, works (largely in the private sector), earns, provides, saves, and gives generously to charity. A high proportion of the members I know are involved in their local communities: indeed, they are the Big Society. But Tory members have undergone one significant change in the last 25 years or so. They are, on the whole, older people. The Conservative Party has been hit hard by the hollowing-out of conventional politics.
The response of the Party leadership, since 2005, could have been to strive for new members - or, alternatively, to abandon the concept of membership, and seek to build a new movement based on overlapping interest groups. Its view of what to do about declining membership has ebbed and flowed as Party Chairmen have come and gone, but one big point is clear. People who join political parties want to have a say in them - or at least a sense of ownership. At a national level, party members have no more say than when David Cameron became leader. And at a local level, they have less: the power of local members to select their own Parliamentary candidates has been diminished by the vogue for primaries. Membership costs £25 a year: no small sum. Payment is followed by a steady stream of letters and e-mails asking for more.
CCHQ and Downing Street (when the Party is in office) has massive power over local Associations which is sometimes arbitrarily wielded: if you doubt it, read Mark Wallace on this site this week on the subject of the present Euro-selections. In short, the Conservative Party is trapped in a spiral of failure as far as membership is concerned. The smaller the membership becomes, the less its leadership trusts it - and the less its leadership trusts it, the smaller its membership becomes. (Meanwhile, UKIP membership rises.) But it doesn't follow that because it's small, it has no influence all - it does, albeit in a very narrow compass. MPs are reliant on their local Associations for support in tough political times - and sometimes fellowship, too. That's why so many of them voted for the Baron Euro-amendment in the Commons this week.
This is the event that triggered the observations on the rotation frequency of actvists' eyeballs by a "member of the inner circle" with "strong social connections to the Prime Minister and close links to the party machine". But if the party on the ground is not in a good way, whose fault is that? Doesn't it lie as much with David Cameron - to whom this person is apparently close - as with activists who have often worked hard for the Party for many years, and will still be working hard when the present leadership has moved on? Since there are few "members of the Prime Minister's inner circle" with "social connections" to him and "close links to the pary machine", I imagine that the secret will probably be out by Monday. I refrain from guessing only because my inkling may be wrong. But I wonder if the position of this mystery man will become untenable.
Parliament means Party, and Party means Whips. In other words, MPs must always form themselves into political parties, which in turn will require whipping, if the executive is to work in our system of Parliamentary government. It follows that Prime Ministers have both a selfless and a selfish reason for taking special care of their whips. If they don't, coherent government becomes impossible (the selfless reason) and their own position becomes endangered (the selfish one). And since it has never been harder to be a Whip - given the transformation of MPs into constituency champions, and their consequent rebelliousness - David Cameron must zealously care for their condition and morale.
The Prime Minister's EU referendum bill gambit was rushed out to quell the threat of a large number of Conservative MPs voting for John Baron's amendment to the Queen's Speech. Over 100 did - so the manoevre failed. That's roughly half of all Tory backbenchers. Blame must therefore lie either with the Whips, for failing to minimise the rebellion, or with Cameron himself, for failing to tell them to do so. The guidance consistent with both minimising the rebellion and good party management would have been to offer one of those free votes that aren't really free votes at all. Both Ministers and backbenchers would have been encouraged by the Whips to abstain, to drive down the number of Tory MPs supporting the Baron amendment.
By Andrew Gimson
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Is the Nick Clegg who promised a referendum at the time of the Lisbon Treaty "an impostor or just a hypocrite"? This was the contemptuous choice offered by Edward Leigh (Con, Gainsborough) as Clegg stood in for David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions.
Leigh was one of several Tory MPs who enjoyed referring to the leaflet in which Clegg pledged himself to a referendum. Vince Cable, believed by some to be intending to supplant Clegg as Lib Dem leader before the next election, grinned as the awkward question was put. Danny Alexander, a loyal Cleggite, looked hot with embarrassment.
But Clegg himself did not look in the slightest bit embarrassed. He confirmed that the man in the leaflet was himself, and declared that the Lib Dem position remains that "we should have a referendum on Europe when the rules change".
Whether or not that is a true summary of the Lib Dem position, Clegg managed to sound as if he thought it was true. He looked like a man who was greatly
enjoying the chance to clear his name.
By Peter Hoskin
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Really, honestly, I woke up this morning intending to write a post on what the continuing EU farrago implies about the next Tory manifesto and, indeed, the formation of the next Government. My argument was straightforward. With David Cameron being pushed into ever more spectacular shows of commitment to an EU Referendum, will the policy be an even more inviolable promise around the next election? And, if so, what would that mean for the chances of another LibCon coalition? If the Lib Dems remained set against a referendum, it could add all up to No.10 for Ed Miliband.
But that was before I read Daniel Finkelstein’s column for the Times (£) this morning, which strides across similar ground. The next election, he writes, “will be one defined not by policy pledges but by how robust those pledges are”. The party leaders will have to, in effect, draw up “red line manifestos,” establishing where they will and will not cede ground in any coalition negotiations. And the upshot is that “it is quite possible that, by the end of it all, the red lines will make the formation of a new coalition very difficult indeed.”
By Andrew Gimson
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What is the point of Grant Shapps? If the Chairman of the Conservative Party can do nothing else, he ought at least to be able to put fresh heart into the Tory faithful. Yet in the eight months he has been Chairman (or technically speaking, Co-Chairman with Lord Feldman, who runs the business side of the party), I cannot find a single instance of Shapps managing to do this.
It is possible he will grow into the role: possible too that he has won golden opinions of which I have not heard. But it is also possible that Shapps has been given an extraordinarily difficult job, is never going to work out how to do it, and should be replaced by someone better able to cheer the Tory troops in the two years which remain before the next election.
On Saturday 9 March, Shapps addressed the ConHome Victory 2015 Conference, which was attended by a large number of Tory activists. He was by common consent the least interesting speaker of the day. He had nothing to say, and said it badly.
There was no sense of connection between the Chairman and his audience: no feeling that party members were being taken into his confidence and having their spirits raised by being offered a glimpse of the route which together they will tread to the sunlit uplands.
Shapps spoke instead of his success as a local campaigner. “How did I win?” he asked. “I got out there and knocked on doors.” This was an insult. Pretty much everyone in the room had knocked on doors. Shapps had somehow managed to suggest, no doubt unintentionally, that if only everyone worked as hard as he did, all would be well: the corollary being that if things went wrong, it would be the poor bloody infantry’s fault.
Anyone can have an off day. I decided to canvas opinion within the party. But the first person I consulted was a shire Tory who was still fuming over something Shapps had said in January, during a discussion on Radio Four about local councillors’ allowances.
Shapps said councillors should not be paid more: an entirely defensible point of view. But the Chairman proceeded to argue that councillors are volunteers, so if they were to get paid, you would have to starting paying volunteers in every walk of life, such as “scout leaders”.
Anyone but Shapps would have seen it was unwise to compare counsellors, who are elected and look after large sums of public money, with scout leaders, no matter how highly one may think of the latter.
The shire Tory happened himself to be a local councillor, and said: “This was an object lesson in how to alienate people who work hard for you. It was stupid, crass and means he’s not a pin-up among the councillor fraternity. He just gave the impression that they [the Tory high command] don’t really want to listen. They just want to tell people what hoops to jump through. They don’t want to hear what it’s like in the front line. The view from the shires is that basically people in the metropolitan elite aren’t really interested in what’s going on elsewhere.”
Shapps finds himself dismissed as a member of the elite even though he is not metropolitan. He was born in Watford, and went to Watford Grammar School and Manchester Polytechnic before setting up a printing firm. Part of his attraction, from the point of view of the Tory leadership, must be that he is not yet another Old Etonian who went on to read PPE, or indeed anything else, at Oxford. He sounds classless, and worked with great persistence to get himself elected for Welwyn Hatfield, where he lost to the sitting Labour MP by 1,196 votes in 2001 but won by 5,946 votes in 2005 and 17,423 votes in 2010.
On arriving at Westminster, he was quick to prove his value. As one close observer puts it: “He was very, very effective in Opposition – a good attack dog who put out press releases attacking Labour all the time. As shadow housing minister he backed localism. He came out of the expenses scandal very well. He was also one of the first MPs to have his own online forum and to go on Twitter. Nothing seemed to be too small for him.”
In 2010, Shapps became Minister of State for Housing and Local Government, and Quentin Letts, of the Daily Mail, even suggested he might be a future Tory leader. Many people began to think Shapps might make a good party chairman, but in retrospect it can be seen that to give him such a prominent role before he had developed an independent political persona was perhaps unwise. The energy and humility needed to deal with small things may or may not be accompanied by an ability to see the big picture, but in Shapps’s case appear not to be.
After Margaret Thatcher died, Andrew Neil asked Shapps: “Are you a Thatcherite?” The Chairman replied: “I think I probably am.”
Neil also asked: “Are you Chairman of a Thatcherite party?” Shapps replied: “We’re a Thatcher party, but we’re also a John Major party.”
Such feeble responses do not make Tory viewers feel proud that this man is their party Chairman. A Tory lady remarked of him: “It’s not even as if Grant appeals to young people.”
In confirmation of this, a young Tory activist who is currently employed by a think tank said of Shapps: “He’s very pro-active, to the point of being annoying. Obviously he attends every event, and works very hard, but there’s no flair to it and I don’t know what his core principles are. He doesn’t inspire me. I do think he’s been over-promoted.”
A senior Tory backbencher described Shapps as “able, extremely nice, but extraordinarily inexperienced for his present role”. Tory chairmen since the Second World War have included Lord Woolton, Lord Hailsham, Rab Butler, Iain Macleod, Lord Carrington, Willie Whitelaw, Peter Thorneycroft, Cecil Parkinson, Norman Tebbit and Chris Patten. The best chairmen have already been considerable figures when they were appointed.
Another long-serving Tory backbencher was less charitable: “We don’t want Muppets being the voice of the Tory Party, and that’s what we’ve got with Grant Yapps.”
This backbencher insisted, rather unkindly, that Shapps was becoming known as Yapps because of a tendency to yap, and added that “he called himself Michael Green for several years, for reasons no one entirely understands”.
In September 2012, soon after he became Chairman, it emerged that on HowToCorp, an online marketing company Shapps set up, he had indeed called himself Michael Green.
That curious detail is, it seems to me, irrelevant to the question of whether Shapps is capable of encouraging the Tory troops to get out and trounce their opponents. But the fact is that after an eight-month trial it looks most unlikely he is.Any fair-minded observer would agree that inspiring the Tory footsoldiers is just now more difficult and more necessary than ever, given the shrinking size of the party, and the rise of UKIP. But that is why the Prime Minister should think again, and should appoint someone to the role who is already a big political figure. To leave Shapps there for the next two years would be to insult a party which already feels it has been insulted enough.
The main argument for the Baron/Bone amendment to the Queen's Speech, which regrets the absence of an EU bill, is either that a mandate referendum bill, which aims to give David Cameron a mandate for EU renegotiation, or an In/Out bill, which seeks to write his promised referendum into law (or both), are essential if the Conservatives are to win voters back in 2015. This is simply wrong. Such thinking over-estimates the significance of Parliament and the salience of the E.U issue to voters - including UKIP voters (see here, here and here). The matters that most move the British people at the ballot box are the meat, potatoes and two veg of British politics: the economy, hospitals, schools and crime - plus, of course, immigration.
The mandate referendum is dubious. Its most likely outcome is a large vote for renegotiation on a low turnout - thus undermining the very mandate which it seeks to gain. The writing of an E.U amendment into law is a different matter. While it may not move many voters, it will undoubtedly reassure some, and is sensible enough. The best time for one to be moved, from the point of view of preserving the Coalition, would be during the final period of this Parliament. However, the Prime Minister has now bowed to the will of his party, and had a private members' bill drawn up. This is enough to satisfy Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, who yesterday wrote in support of Cameron's latest initiative, and some other Euro-sceptic MPs, such as Zac Goldsmith.