Now here's a dog that didn't bark in the night-time. Or rather, an MP who spoke in the day-time. David Ruffley, a senior Conservative member of the Treasury Select Committee, went on television yesterday. What did he talk about? The fragile signs of renewed growth in the economy? The fastest rise in house prices for six years? The current condition of Indonesian long bonds? No: the Bury St Edmonds MP mused aloud about what the political landscape might look like after next year's European elections. He said -
"I think next May’s euro elections might put pressure on [Cameron] to go harder because there is a lot of speculation in and around Downing Street, so I am led to believe, that UKIP might come first. Now if that happens next May there’ll be 12 months before the election and some of our colleagues in marginal seats might get a bit windy. I don’t think UKIP are going to win seats but they could split the Conservative vote if they are very strong and let Labour through in those marginal seats. But I think David Cameron has got 12 months to show that his strategy works."
The conventional wisdom is that the maximum point of danger for Cameron's leadership was this month's local elections. But Ruffley's intervention confirms that some backbench dissidents believe that replacing Cameron with a new leader before UKIP tops the poll next year would be cack-handed timing: better to act immediately after that - and let this new leader sprint for the electoral finishing line the following spring. A senior rebel has put exactly the same argument to me during the past week.
Odd that a Tory MP popped up to make the point yesterday, isn't it, over a quiet Bank Holiday weekend? Almost as if someone, somewhere, wanted to serve notice of intent. "I smell a device." "And I have 't in my nose too."
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.
David Cameron has promised an In-Out referendum on the EU in the next Parliament. Why, then, do some of his backbenchers want a mandate referendum now, and still more of them want to write the In-Out referendum into law? There is no simple answer, but a number of different factors have come together. One is the passion that the EU has excited within the Conservative Party since Bruges. Another is fear of UKIP. Still another is the belief, common among Tory MPs, that Cameron is very unlikely to lead a majority Conservative Government after 2015. But, above all perhaps, there is, at worst, a distrust of the Prime Minister over Europe and, at best, the conviction among Tory MPs that on the issue he will follow rather than lead.
Cameron's gambit yesterday evening was crafted to ward off accusations of followership after a day in which party debate over the Baron/Bone amendment to the Queen's Speech, and over the EU itself, threatened to run out of control. The device of a Private Member's Bill is the best he can do to regain the initiative - since Nick Clegg will not concede a Government Bill, even on a free vote, and there is nothing the Prime Minister can do to master him, short of breaking up the Coalition altogether. Such a Bill is unlikely to deliver the goods, since such measures are vulnerable to being talked out. Ed Miliband's main aim will be to obscure his party's own differences on the EU, and to out-manoevre Cameron when MPs vote in the Commons - in alliance, probably, with the Liberal Democrats.
The Davis support is hardcore. When asked who should lead the Party into the next election, 14% of respondents name him. 15% plump for Boris.
But the overwhelming favourite to lead the Conservatives into the next election is...David Cameron, with over half the vote: 55% to be precise.
Apart from Davis and Boris, no other leading Tory gets out of single figures. William Hague comes the closest, at just over 5%.
Just under 1850 people responded to the survey, of whom over 800 were Conservative Party members. The figures above are taken from the latter's views.
By Tim Montgomerie
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This morning's Times (£) reports that the No Turning Back Group of Tory MPs recently met and discussed the prospect of finding a way of bringing the Coalition to an end and some members even raised the possibility of unseating David Cameron. The Times' story comes at a time when there is frenzied speculation about Theresa May's ambitions. The Mail pours a little cold water on the idea that she might be a near time challenger for the Tory leadership but it also presents "Britain's Mrs Merkel" (© ConHome) as the "Stop Boris" candidate at some point after the next election. In The Telegraph yesterday Benedict Brogan even suggested that Mrs May and Philip Hammond were mounting some sort of joint operation. He talked of Mrs May as a future leader with Mr Hammond as her Chancellor. That suggestion followed Paul Goodman's blog in which he talked about Hammond, May and Grayling all positioning for the leadership race to come.
By Paul Goodman
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There's a triple significance to the post-Eastleigh interventions of the three main Conservative members of the National Union of Ministers - Philip Hammond, Theresa May, and Chris Grayling.
It may look at first glance as though Hammond's plea for savings from welfare to be found to protect his budget, and May and Grayling's interventions over the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act last weekend, have little connection, if any - but they've more in common than meets the eye.
From All Sunday Editions
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Panic bells were clamouring in Downing Street tonight and Conservative Campaign Headquarters was thrown into turmoil at claims that glamour-denuded, "post-political" and IPSA-impoverished backbencher J.Alfred Prufrock is poised to issue a historic challenge today to David Cameron for the Tory leadership.
One source close to the now Twitter-enabled MP said that he will issue his "Turquoise Manifesto" this morning, and that a list of supporters - who will be branded as "Candidate Champions" - will follow by lunchtime. An intervention at Prime Minister's Questions is planned for later this week, with letters of no-confidence in Cameron to be sent by Thursday to Graham Brady, the '22 Committe Chairman.
Prufrock himself, however, denied the claim when contacted by ConservativeHome earlier this evening and asked for his comments on the story. "This is a very naughty conversation. You are being very mischievous," he said. "I supported David Cameron to become leader. I love him and want him to be leader for the next thousand years. I am going to end this conversation." He then hung up.
However, friends of Prufrock insist that "Albert is sitting on up to 60 no-confidence letters", that over 150 Tory MPs are "signed up in blood", and that a team of secret backers, known in the lobbies as "FrockHeads", have been stalking the tearoom gathering support. "We have enough signatures to send Cameron to sleep with the fishes," one supporter said earlier today. "Alfred is poised to throw his toupee into the ring."
Prufrock's "No Change, No Chance" manifesto offers a "Five Point Plan to Save Your Seat":
Other populist manifesto features include "a real ale supermarket maximum pricing scheme".
Prufrock, who describes himself as a "a pragmatic Euro-realist sceptic", will also push for Britain to supplement its special relationship with the U.S with "a new strategic alliance with the Faroe Islands". A plan to encourage annual school visits to the Molineux Stadium has been dropped. Asked by ConservativeHome for his views on same-sex marriage, a supporter said: "His position is a stroke of political genius. He is both for it and against it."
Prufrock leads Telegraph leadership poll
A chaos-stricken Number 10 conceded earlier that it is facing defeat. "We can't think of anything unpleasant to say, because we've simply never heard of him," a senior Downing Street source admitted. But Prufrock's allies hit back: "Albern is completely unforgettable, once you can remember who he is," one said. "Dull is the new cool." Earlier yesterday, the Grummidge MP was narrowly outstripping Boris Johnson in the Daily Telegraph's Tory leadership reader poll.
Grant Shapps, the Conservative Party Chairman, claimed that "I have spoken to Aldrich, and can confirm that like all of us he is 100% behind David Cameron. There's nothing to see here: just move along, now." However, Prufrock sources claimed that in a re-enactment of the famous scene from "Spartacus", a crack team of 50 hardline "Frockheads" will stand in their places crying "I'm Prufrock!" during Wednesday's PMQs, before stripping to T-shirts bearing the slogan.
I'm Spartacus! I'm Prufrock!
Quizzied over whether their man is a "Stalking Horse" or a "Stalking Donkey", in the tradition of Sir Anthony Meyer, a Prufrock supporter described him solemnly as a "Stalking Womble". Asked if he was aware that the leadership rules no longer require a stalking horse, the supporter paused for a very long time. There is no sign that this fact has dampened the plot. Nor that it will prevent us, since we're desparate for a splash on a rainy January Sunday, from writing about it.
By Tim Montgomerie
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Some spectacularly ill-timed press speculation this morning about David Cameron's future as Tory leader. Both the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Times (for the second week in a row) are puffing up the idea that David Cameron's leadership is in danger. They do so on the morning when Labour's lead has fallen below 10% in four Sunday newspaper opinion polls. You could say five if you count the ICM poll for last week's Guardian. If any leadership should be in trouble it should be Ed Miliband's. For reasons I won't repeat this morning, Labour has significant structural advantages but (i) Ed Miliband's personal unpopularity and (ii) his failure to detoxify his party's spendthrift image mean his party is failing to capitalise on the Coalition's not insignificant weaknesses.
The Mail on Sunday and Sunday Times (£) are suggesting that backbench Tory MP Adam Afriyie is lining up a campaign to challenge for the Tory leadership - most likely after the next election but possibly beforehand. Mr Afriyie - inevitably dubbed the "Tory Obama" - is said to have an eight strong parliamentary campaign team, which includes Cities of London and Westminster MP Mark Field. One hundred Tory MPs are reported to have been contacted to elicit whether they would back an Afriyie candidacy.
By Paul Goodman
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It is possible to imagine a Conservative Cabinet consisting only of men. Come to think of it, the present one has more male Liberal Democrat MPs than female Conservative ones.
But is it possible to imagine the present Parliamentary Party furnishing an all-women Cabinet?
I have had a go, have come up with the following, and expect no-one to agree with it (least of all women Tory MPs for whom there wasn't room).
By Paul Goodman
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"Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it's enemy action" - Ian Fleming, Goldfinger.
David Cameron wants Britain to stay in the EU. Michael Gove would vote for it to come out.
Mr Cameron believes that UKIP members are "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly". Mr Gove says that UKIP is a mainstream political party.
When do we get the enemy action?