By Mark Wallace
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The need for politicians to reconnect with the electorate is beyond debate. Falling turnout, the collapse in party memberships, and widespread disillusionment with politics and its practitioners all demonstrate the scale of the problem.
The initial reaction of the political class to this problem was to come up with the worst possible response: blaming the people.
Even the choice of word to label the issue was patronising and inaccurate: apathy. All the polling, as well as the clear evidence of growing online activism and rising pressure group membership, shows that people don't care any less than before about political issues.
Rather, voters increasingly feel that the political process, and the parties who operate within it, does not offer any solution to their problems. Why donate, volunteer and vote if in return there is no appreciable change?
They are as follows:
Having been in the Commons for the best part of ten years, I appreciate that logic isn't everything in politics: sometimes, even often, there's a role for fudge. But a lesson of so much that's happened to Cameron on EU policy - from the dropping of the Lisbon referendum commitment in opposition to the EU referendum revolt last week - is that by consistently seeking to put off making decisions on the EU issue, the Prime Minister has merely stored up trouble for himself later.
No political party should alter a bedrock institution without the following conditions applying - especially if it is the Conservative Party. A sizeable campaign to change that institution should be in place: in other words, there should be real evidence of public pressure. The Party should then discuss and debate the matter internally. If the Party then decides on change, if should say so unambiguously in its general election manifesto. If it doesn't win the election, but enters into Coalition, any commitment to effect that change should be written into the consequent Coalition Agreement. Ideally, any bill enacting the change should be preceded by a Green Paper in which any problematic consequences of the bill could be aired, and solutions thereby sought. Such solutions could then be written into the bill, or tacked on to it by amendments. Finally, the bill should be subject to a geniunely free vote.
Not a single one of these conditions apply to the same-sex marriage bill, on which MPs will vote this evening.
No campaign for same-sex marriage preceded the bill. (Although Stonewall has consistently favoured same-sex marriage, it didn't launch a big campaign for it - at least partly because it thought the Government wouldn't concede it.) There was no discussion within the Conservative Party, especially at local level. There was no manifesto commitment. There was no Coalition Agreement undertaking. There was no Green Paper. There have been no significant amendments - other than Labour's on equal civil partnerships. And there has been no free vote, at least at when it comes to members of the Executive: it has been made very clear to Ministers which lobby the Prime Minister wants them to go into. For these reasons alone, Tory backbenchers should vote against the bill at Third Reading this evening. The way in which it has been introduced and championed has broken every rule of good government and party management.
The Loongate row is still reverberating in the Party, especially at local Association level. The key point about it is that too many Conservatives, from the Cabinet table to the grassroots, believe that the controversial words are what is thought and said of them in Downing Street. No measure has done more to buttress that impression than the same-sex marriage bill - which has been imposed on the Party with such absolutism, and which is the cause of such a bitter culture war. Many older people especially see the measure as a deliberate assault on their values: the bill might thus almost have been designed as a recruiting-sergeant for UKIP. For this reason alone, Tory MPs should vote against the bill this evening in good heart. They will certainly grasp that Ministers haven't a clue what the courts will do when they get to work on Equality Act challenges, and that the bill is consequently a threat to religious freedom.
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.
Andrew Feldman has issued a statement as follows: "There is speculation on the internet and on Twitter that the senior Conservative Party figure claimed to have made derogatory comments by the Times and the Telegraph is me. This is completely untrue. I would like to make it quite clear that I did not, nor have ever described our associations in this way or in any similar manner. I am taking legal advice."
The question that obviously follows is whether some other person with "strong social connections to the Prime Minister and close links to the party machine", as the Times (£) put it this morning, spoke the contested words. This seems not to be the case, and Lord Feldman's statement confirms that he is indeed the man at the centre of this controversy. I understand that a conversation between him and several lobby journalists took place at a dinner earlier this week.
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.