By Tim Montgomerie
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Andy Coulson, David Cameron's former head of communications, has written an article for the October edition of GQ (out this week) in which he gives some advice on how the Tories might counter UKIP. In summary...
My old friend Peter Wilding of British Influence begins a riposte to Douglas Carswell in the Daily Telegraph as follows: "In the 1970s you could find in Tory Associations up and down the land cabals of retired colonels and spotty youths coming together to agree that the country had gone to the dogs and the only way forward was back. These were not the Thatcherites. They were the fruity cocktail of old League of Empire Loyalists, sad Monday Clubbers and new, tie-wearing teenagers on the make. They wanted the empire back, the immigrants out and Russia bombed. It would only take 15 divisions to reconquer India, Enoch was right and Moscow was toast." Wilding goes on to compare Carswell to "swivel-eyed forebears" and mock "the Carswell handbag".
Leave for a moment the rights and wrongs of the argument (though I think, given his ad hominem attacks on Carswell, Wilding is unwise to criticise him for playing "the men, not the ball"). Instead, consider those retired colonels and tie-wearing, spotty youths. Having been a spotless, tieless youth at the time, Wilding knows as well as I do that a big chunk of the spotty ones were Thatcherites - not to mention those harrumphing retired colonels. And in believing that "Moscow was toast", they were right: it may temporarily have escaped Wilding that the entire Soviet system collapsed roughly a decade later.
Cynics will say that now Edward Leigh has his knighthood in his pocket (so to speak), he will feel free to be as openly critical of the Government as he likes. But I think this would be to mis-read the significance of his sweeping dismissal on this site today of the Queen's Speech as "the weakest legislative programme in recent memory", and his warning that "unless there is a change of course, and a firming-up of our Conservative instincts, we could lose the election". He writes: "A group of like-minded Members of Parliament – the Centre-Right Steering Group – have been coming together in recent weeks to question the path the leadership are taking and to scrutinise their policies".
The steering group brings together some of the main groups on the centre-right of the Party - including Cornerstone and the No Turning Back Group. It is likely that some of its key members will have been aware of Leigh's article in advance of publication. And David Cameron is acutely aware that views of his leadership on the Party's centre-right range from the loyally critical to the contemptuously hostile: hence his recent appointment of John Hayes, who co-founded Cornerstone with Leigh, to Downing Street as his Parliamentary Private Secretary.
Signs of economic recovery and of progress in the polls, and attempts by the Prime Minister to reach out to his right (such as the masterminding of James Wharton's EU referendum bill) seem to have done nothing to pacify some of Cameron's critics, for whose grievances he must take some of the blame. I believe that Leigh is right on some points (same-sex marriage, HS2) and wrong on others (tax and spending). David Cameron isn't going to tear up his election pledges, and un-ring fence aid and NHS spending. So to suggest that he does is a waste of breath.
In which case, the economies that Leigh wants - and for which he has such a keen eye in his role as a former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee - wouldn't be enough to deliver tax cuts on the scale he implies. The Government would need billions of pounds in savings, not millions - and to find them, it would need drastically to re-think the role of state, along the lines set out by Harry Phibbs set out recently on this site, and pursued by Liam Fox in a recent speech in which he praised our Local Government correspondent.
I am all for such a re-think - ConservativeHome is one of the few centre-right publications to have run a series on how to scale back public spending further - but, when it comes to cutting spending, much of the right is all mouth and no trousers. All in all, Leigh's worry about "a percentage of our people [peeling] away to the right" is absolutely correct but, if such imagery is to be used, David Cameron must worry no less about the Party's appeal to the centre. Successful conservative leaders abroad, such as Stephen Harper, appeal to both at the same time.
The leitmotif of this site since it was set up has been that to campaign on such Tory staple issues as tax and Europe is necessary but not sufficent. To maintain power, it must recognise that most of the seats it needs to win and hold are urban and suburban ones in the midlands and north, where the public sector is larger, selling a scale-back of the state is more difficult, and voters (as they are elsewhere) are at least as concerned about, say the NHS as the EU - to put it mildly. Leigh places an electoral stress on the issue that the polling evidence doesn't justify.
But in doing so, he sends an important message to Downing Street. Only a majority Conservative Government can deliver the In/Out referendum to which David Cameron is committed. The promise of the latter has satisfied some of the Prime Minister's former critics on the EU who simply want Out. But it hasn't quelled the appetite of many of his backbenchers for a major renegotiation, and Leigh's views are an eloquent expression of them. If Cameron delays setting out his own view until late next year, he risks a destabilising row about its scale and ambition during the run-up to an election. Better for him and everyone else to have it sooner rather than later, rather than let the matter drift through inertia and irresolution.
By Mark Wallace
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When Freeborn John Lilburne, the Leveller, appeared before the Star Chamber in 1637, he refused to do as they asked. He would not take the oath or answer questions, and as a result he was fined £500, whipped, humiliated in a pillory and thrown in jail.
Given that history, it is not hard to see why George Osborne has chosen to refound the Star Chamber to deal with those in the Cabinet who are refusing to sign up to the cuts needed for his spending review. A number of ministers must be hoping the pillory, at least, has been decommissioned since Lilburne's day.
The psychology is simple. Instead of being pelted by the London mob, any modern day John Lilburnes who won't play along are set to face humiliation in front of their peers. Eric Pickles, Danny Alexander and Oliver Letwin will be sat alongside the Chancellor flinging the metaphorical rotten turnips.
But the politics is rather more complex than it appears.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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 next general election will not be concentrated in the counties, but it will decide the government. For this reason, voters will return to the two major parties, the Conservatives and Labour, one of which must lead in forming an administration, if not win outright. Turnout will rise, UKIP's share of the vote will fall, and the best course that David Cameron can take, in the meanwhile, is to hold his nerve, build on his recent conference speeches, and promote a strong, mainstream, sensible programme, for government and for the future. In short, no single, silver bullet will slay the Farage werewolf.
Such a programme would be a conservatism for Bolton West, as I've put it: reducing net immigration, tackling welfare dependency, holding fuel and electricity bills down, showing leadership at home by bringing the deficit down further, boosting job security and helping to keep mortgage rates low. All this is the conventional wisdom, and it's true as far as it goes. I started to look at UKIP and what drives its vote relatively early, and noted that EU policy is not the main factor: immigration and crime are bigger factors. Above all, UKIP's support is driven not so much by ideas as by anger - by the urge to put two fingers up to the entire political class.