Conservative Diary

Big Beasts

27 Jun 2013 07:58:57

George Osborne, the best political strategist we've got. (Indeed, the only one we've got.)

By Paul Goodman
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Osborne PenknifeYesterday, Mark Wallace set out in detail on this site George Osborne's patchy record as Chancellor.  Progress on deficit reduction has stalled.  There have been some welcome tax cuts, but little tax simplification.  Big infrastructure decisions have been slow to come, though there may be some good news today about nuclear.  (Patrick McLoughlin takes to this site today to make the case for the money-guzzling HS2 project.)  The proof of the Michael Gove schools and skills pudding will be in the eating, which won't take place for a decade - in other words, until today's generation of children become tomorrow's workers.  Michael Fallon is striving mightily at BIS, but while £4bn of regulatory costs have been eliminated, £3bn of new costs have been imposed in the last two years.

Indeed, the Chancellor has compromised his original version of a German model for Britain's economy (what Tim Montgomerie called in opposition "a heavy emphasis on economic fundamentals like skills, high-end manufacturing, science investment and regionalism") and is staking his hopes on a good, or rather bad, old-fashioned British housing boom - talking of which, today's papers remind us of the possible consequences for Britain's indebted homeowners when the Bank of England abandons quantitative easing.  Why, then, are the centre-right papers - with the exception of the Sun - positive, on the whole, about yesterday's spending review, which announced a mere £11.5 billion of savings: little more than the total Government spend of well over £700 billion?

I think there are three main answers.  First, because the review will have reminded them that there is no alternative to a Cameron-led Conservative Party as a governing force - when it comes to comparing it with Ed Miliband's unreformed and unready Labour Party, at any rate.  Second, because they will have liked most of Osborne's announcements: the cap on the welfare bill, the requirements to learn English, the seven-day wait before signing on, the end to automatic pay rises for millions of public sector workers.  There will be devils in the detail of some of these plans: I'm curious to know, for example, exactly how they will apply to disability benefits.  But the broad thrust of them is right, and they thus have merit regardless of whether or not they place Ed Balls on the wrong side of a dividing line.

Furthermore, the Chancellor got them past the Liberal Democrats and, in doing so, held out a tantalising glimpse of what a majority Conservative Government - or rather, to be realistic, a second blue-yellow Coalition - might look like after 2015.  Very slowly, imperfectly, but unmistakably all the same, Osborne is striving to shape a Conservative idea of Britain, in which Gordon Brown's client state is, if not rolled back, at least trimmed, and in which the state pension, the NHS, science, the security services, free schools and defence (up to a point) are protected.  Rab Butler once agreed with the suggestion that Anthony Eden was "the best Prime Minister we've got".  The Chancellor is not only "the best Chancellor we've got" but the best political strategist the Conservatives have got.

This is certainly a compliment, but less of one than it seems.  For the fact is that Osborne is the only political strategist the Conservatives have got.  None of his Tory Cabinet colleagues quite fit the bill, at least yet.  Iain Duncan Smith's long crusade for social justice has helped to change the climate of opinion about welfare.  Michael Gove is the Government's most effective reformer to date.  Eric Pickles's achievements at CLG are under-rated.  Theresa May is beginning to spell out her view of what the Conservative Party should be and do.  But none of them have produced a big plan that has put Labour on the back foot - and is helping to change the content of national debate about welfare, immigration, integration and public sector pay in a way that was almost unimaginable until very recently.

17 Jun 2013 08:18:13

Caveat emptor - Boris is not a standard issue Conservative

By Tim Montgomerie
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Boris Johnson is the only Tory politician to have won a major election in more than twenty years. He won in traditionally Labour territory. Twice. Once in the middle of a period of Tory-led austerity. His popularity with the general public is exceptional. The bounce he enjoyed after last summer's Olympics has been sustained according to a ComRes poll in yesterday's Independent on Sunday. He enjoys a favourability rating of 44% compared to Cameron's 23%. In the absence of a compelling alternative the Tories would be making a good bet in choosing Boris as their leader at some unknown point in the future. If the party does ever choose him as its leader it should go into the arrangement with its eyes wide open, however. As I argue in today's Times (£) Boris is typical of a number of centre right politicians who have prospered in normally left-of-centre jurisdictions... and that will upset some Tories.

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Boris is similar to other centre right politicians who've prospered in left-of-centre cities and states. He shares Arnold Schwarzenegger's relaxed approach to immigration and some of the former California Governator's greenery. Like New York's Giuliani he has the same commitment to abortion rights and full equality for gay people and minorities. Like the interventionist Heseltine - Maggie's minister for Liverpool after the 1980s riots - he favours grands projets. 

Continue reading "Caveat emptor - Boris is not a standard issue Conservative" »

7 May 2013 16:41:46

Boris remains the activists' favourite to succeed Cameron as Party leader

By Paul Goodman
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Boris_Cameron8According to the latest ConservativeHome survey, the figures are:

  • Boris Johnson: 30%
  • Michael Gove: 17%
  • David Davis: 16%
  • William Hague: 16%
  • Theresa May: 12%
  • Philip Hammond: 6%
  • Adam Afriyie: 2%
  • George Osborne: 2%

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.

29 Apr 2013 12:15:22

Ken Clarke is right to abuse UKIP...and Boris Johnson is right to woo it

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 12.11.59
By Andrew Gimson

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Ken Clarke appeared on television yesterday morning in a beige roll-neck jersey of what I can only call magnificent unfashionableness. The garment proclaimed, without need for words, an Englishman’s ancient and inviolable right to wear whatever he feels comfortable in on Sunday morning, regardless of how dowdy it may look to metropolitan trendies, and regardless of whether he happens to be going on television.

Mr Clarke has another ancient English characteristic. He enjoys being rude about people. In his Sunday morning interview with Dermot Murnaghan of Sky News, he was rude about UKIP. I find it frustrating to read only the most abusive snippets from this kind of attack, which is all one gets in news reports where the journalist is having to cover a lot of ground. So here are two of the exchanges quoted at greater length, taken from the transcript prepared for Sky News.

Continue reading "Ken Clarke is right to abuse UKIP...and Boris Johnson is right to woo it" »

6 Apr 2013 06:09:21

When IDS and his girlfriend were living in a single room with a one-ring gas oven

By Paul Goodman
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Duncan Smith September 2011It's characteristic of George Osborne, professional politician that he is, to have dodged the inevitable question this week on whether he could live on £53 a week, and also characteristic of Iain Duncan Smith, who is not a professional politician at all, to have confronted it.

Andrew Pierce of the Daily Mail, which is very supportive of the Work and Pensions Secretary, has a sympathetic interview with IDS today in which he describes his period as "an unemployed soldier returning home each day to his girlfriend’s tiny bedsit in a bleak Victorian house, trying not to lose hope at a time when unemployment levels were nudging to a post-war high of 3 million".

‘The honest truth is that I lived illegally with Betsy in the bedsit, trying to pretend I was not there. I didn’t have any money, which is why I tried to avoid the landlady,’ recalls Duncan Smith.

IDS and his future wife were living in one room with a one-ring gas oven, and had to keep the meter fed in case the gas ran out halfway through cooking dinner.  Each day he put on his only suit and went to the nearest job exchange - rather in the manner of Norman Tebbit's father, who famously got on his bike and looked for work - before going on to the library.

The man who is now Work and Pensions Secretary, and has been the party's leader, was never going to starve.  But Pierce's interview is a fascinating study of part of his life.  He has had his ups and downs, has IDS - more, I think, than most of his fellow Cabinet members.

Artless he may, but his quirky combination of spontaneity, social concern and doggedness have stood him in excellent stead in the welfare reform debate - so far.  As we've seen this week, it's livening up...and he has the Universal Credit to deliver.

3 Apr 2013 11:08:39

When it comes to Attack Dogs, Osborne's still a Big Beast

By Paul Goodman
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OSBORNE SWORDGeorge Osborne is no less a pupil of Gordon Brown than Ed Balls, at least when it comes to moving pieces on the political chessboard.  To change the image, Brown was a believer in "dividing lines" - gambits designed to throw his opponents on the defensive.  "Labour Investment versus Tory cuts".  "Labour's 50p rate versus Tory posh boys."  "Labour's NHS investment versus Tory privatisation plans."  Osborne usually swerved to avoid the traps, and has been lambasted for it - especially for his early decision as Shadow Chancellor to stick to Labour's spending plans.  But it's worth noting that after the single occasion when he walked knowingly into one, the party's poll ratings slumped, and the right didn't back him up.  I refer, of course, to the cut in the 50p rate.

Continue reading "When it comes to Attack Dogs, Osborne's still a Big Beast" »

11 Mar 2013 11:18:01

Fox moves away from Osborne

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-03-11 at 11.10.17Liam Fox and George Osborne have been united for years by a mutual love of America, excellent links with the Republicans, and neo-conservative foreign policy instincts - not to mention a shared sense of humour.  After Fox left the Cabinet, word got around that the two were enjoying regular curry suppers together at the Treasury.  None the less, more than misty-eyedness when the Star-Spangled Banner is played - plus a lively interest in political strategy and a shared love of the political game - bound the two together.  Fox will have seen Osborne as part of his route back to office.  And Osborne will have seen Fox as a useful shield against attacks from the right.  I suspect the hand of the Chancellor behind rumours that the former Defence Secretary should become Chief Whip at the next reshuffle but, then again, I have a way of seeing Osborne's tentacles everywhere... 

Continue reading "Fox moves away from Osborne" »

11 Mar 2013 08:19:21

Four headline conclusions from Saturday's Victory 2015 Conference

By Tim Montgomerie
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On Saturday ConservativeHome held our Victory 2015 Conference - on how we might win the next General Election. Lord Ashcroft has already written his review of the day and here are a few headline conclusions from me:

Screen Shot 2013-03-11 at 08.17.58

There is an appetite for serious politics. Saturday was quite heavy. There were some detailed polling presentations, a serious philosophical speech from the Home Secretary and some very thoughtful workshops on how the party might reach out to key demographic groups. And from all of the feedback I received people really enjoyed it. Again and again people said that this was what a political conference should be like. There'll be more events like it from ConHome in the future. My biggest regret was that we booked such a small venue. We'd sold out after about three weeks and had barely promoted the event. We could quite easily have sold two or three times as many tickets. Perhaps, one day in the not too distant future, ConHome will have one thousand people at such conferences.

The next election is going to be very hard to win. Even before the Conference started only 7% of Tory members expected Cameron to win a majority. That was before Lord Ashcroft had published his survey of 19,000 voters in marginal seats. The good news from his mega poll was that the Tories are doing better in the marginals than in the country as a whole. The survey also found that, despite Eastleigh, the Tories could hope to win 17 seats from the Liberal Democrats. Overall, however, unless the outlook improves (and Trevor Kavanagh is sure that it must) Ed Miliband will become Prime Minister with a large Labour majority.

Continue reading "Four headline conclusions from Saturday's Victory 2015 Conference" »

5 Mar 2013 07:16:31

The next Conservative leadership election is under way

Screen shot 2013-03-04 at 17.58.32
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.

  • All three show up Downing Street's lack of authority and grip.  It wasn't clear at the weekend whether David Cameron had licensed Hammond to defend his budget.  It now seems that it didn't: today, an anonymous "close ally of the Prime Minister" is quoted as saying: “You cannot be a fiscal conservative and then say that does not apply in your own department.”  And it still isn't clear whether or not Number 10 was aware of, or was perhaps even the source of, this weekend's report that Theresa May favours leaving the ECHR.  (It was presumably aware of Chris Grayling's on-the-record support for tearing up the Human Rights Act).  Indeed, news of her backing for the measure doesn't seem to have come from her, though it hasn't been denied by the Home Office and hasn't drawn a view from Downing Street.  This is the nub of the matter.  Prime Ministers will sometimes encourage Ministers to float ideas, and then let it be known that they approve of them.  But there has been no real follow-up to Grayling's words or May's view from Number 10 - no rowing-in behind abolishing the Act or leaving the ECHR, no sense of political purpose, commitment or direction. Instead, Ken Clarke has taken his colleagues to task. This sense of Ministers stating their own views and going their own way, with Downing Street apparently powerless to prevent them, opened up Number 10 to Mark Field's blood-drawing counter-attack.
  • The May and Grayling follow-up, together with Number 10's own reaction to Eastleigh, shows that it hasn't a settled strategy for dealing with UKIP.  Tearing up the Human Rights Act...leaving the ECHR...restricting the access of immigrants to legal aid and benefits...proposals for less Europe and more border control are leaking from Ministers and Downing Street into the media.  It is unfair to accuse Downing Street of "lurching to the right" after Eastleigh.  (Why do we hear so little from the BBC and others of Ed Miliband "lurching to the left"?)  David Cameron's Sunday Telegraph article was careful to balance "bringing down immigration" with "proper investment in the NHS".  But Downing Street is undoubtedly preoccupied with how to deal with UKIP in the aftermath of Eastleigh and the run-up to this spring's local elections.  Promises of tougher border control and tighter benefit conditions won't be enough - and nor will hints about quitting the ECHR.  UKIP is a boot which angry voters, who believe that Britain is changing for the worse, are using to kick the system.  Those disillusioned voters now include a significant slice of the Conservatives' natural electoral base, who believe that Cameron is a creature of the political class who cares nothing for their values.  May's record of reducing net immigration  won't win them all back.  Nor will Number 10's "Santa Claus" line of attack - at least until voters stop using UKIP as a protest vehicle, and start questioning how it would reconcile tax cuts for "everyone" with more police, prison places, NHS services, student grants, bigger pensions and higher defence spending.  Hammond's intervention on the last shrewdly recognises another UKIP pressure point.

Continue reading "The next Conservative leadership election is under way" »

5 Feb 2013 07:29:04

May, Grayling & Hammond launch "a co-ordinated counter-attack" on Osborne over spending

By Paul Goodman
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The Independent reported yesterday that George Osborne has taken it upon himself to intervene in today's same-sex marriage bill.  The Chancellor, it said, "is understood to have been contacting MPs whose position is still uncertain" (on a measure, remember, which is officially a matter for a free vote).  It is surprising that he can find the time to do so, given the problems on his doorstep at the Treasury - and within the party.

The Financial Times today claims that Philip Hammond, Chris Grayling and Theresa May  "all told the chancellor in blunt terms that he should rethink his strategy" at a recent Cabinet session about the spending review.  The paper describes their assault as "an immediate and co-ordinated counter-attack".  As it makes clear, the troika were demanding not a change in economic strategy, but a shift in spending priorities.

Continue reading "May, Grayling & Hammond launch "a co-ordinated counter-attack" on Osborne over spending" »