Conservative Diary


16 Nov 2012 07:11:59

The lesson of yesterday's elections. Unlike his predecessors, Cameron is under siege from two sides

By Paul Goodman
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Conventional wisdom is that elections are won from the centre.  That image naturally leads to  debate about where "the centre ground might be", and whether the image works in the first place: are elections really won in a centre ground or in a common ground?

Centre-right commentators such as Matthew D'Ancona have argued that in the wake of the American Presidential election result that the conventional wisdom holds true - and, deceptive though transatlantic parallels can be, making the comparison is alluring.

In both countries, ethnic minority voters vote left and are growing fast.  In both, women tend to lean left and men right.  In both, perhaps above all, the appetite for state dependency is more resilient than it was during the 1980s.

And in both, too, the leadership of centre-right parties lacks natural affinity with blue collar voters.  What David Frum has called "the right-wing entertainment industry" claims to speak for these swing voters, but is more truly the voice of parts of its own core constituency.

Continue reading "The lesson of yesterday's elections. Unlike his predecessors, Cameron is under siege from two sides" »

6 Nov 2012 19:01:40

Could Nadine Dorries now force a by-election - and, if so, who would she support?

By Paul Goodman
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I suggested earlier today that modern expectations of what an MP is - someone holding down a full-time - might well end the political career of Nadine Dorries, since her constituents and Association were likely to take her decision to spend as much as a month on I'm a Celebrity very badly indeed.

The BBC reports Paul Duckett, chairman of the Mid-Bedforshire Conservative association, saying that members may consider sacking Ms Dorries over her appearance on the show, adding that he only learned about Ms Dorries's decision on Tuesday morning.  It adds that "the association is holding an emergency meeting on Tuesday evening" (presumably this evening).

I'm left wondering therefore whether David Cameron's decision to withdraw the party whip from Ms Dorries - technically, it will have been the Chief Whip's decision, but he will scarcely have made it without a view from Downing Street - simultaneouly lets her off the hook while also suspending her. The position is physically difficult, but psychologically - and politically - quite possible.

  • Mr Cameron's critics will argue that its one law for the "posh boys" (such as Andrew Mitchell) and another for a working-class woman.  Damian Thompson has been swift to draw the contrast.
  • By suspending the whip, the Prime Minister has also nudged Ms Dorries towards the exit door.  Members of her Association may feel that this is a decision they would rather make for themselves.
  • If the mid-Bedfordshire MP is shoved towards that door, might she leap through it herself rather than be pushed?  Might she simply stand down on her return from the steaming jungle and cause a by-election in the Bedfordshire mid-winter?
  • And if she caused a by-election, who would she support?  I have no evidence that the answer might be UKIP, but the question is worth asking.  Could she even (gulp) defect?  UKIP will win Euro-seats in 2014, you know, in the Bedfordshire area - and elsewhere.

16 Dec 2011 07:50:47

The nothing-in-it-for-anyone by-election

By Paul Goodman
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It's sometimes said of an election result that "there's something in it for everyone".

When it comes to yesterday's Feltham and Heston by-election, however, the figures show that there was nothing in it for anyone, except perhaps UKIP.

  • Labour's vote fell by over a third - from 21,174 to 12,639 to be precise.  Were I one of the party's spinners, I would avoid this figure and proclaim both its higher percentage of the vote (54.4% compared to 43.6% last year) and the swing to Labour - 8.6%.  One can have a lot of fun with what by-election swings would produce if replicated in a general election, and the spinners will doubtless try to do so.  But I doubt if their hearts will be in it: the first by-election test of Ed Miliband's leadership has seen his party gain the support of under 13,000 voters.  The turnout was a meagre 28.8% - apparently the lowest in a by-election for 11 years.  All this is just about the perfect Labour result for David Cameron: bad enough for Miliband to offer little prospect of general election success, but good enough to douse speculation about his leadership (at least today).
  • The Conservative vote dropped by well over half - from 16,516 to 6,436.  So no endorsement for David Cameron, although CCHQ will argue that his veto came too late to affect the postal votes, many of which had already been cast by last Friday.  (They constituted over 20 per cent of the vote in 2010.)  The silver lining of this lustreless cloud for Number 10 is that the Tory vote didn't collapse, as it has so often done in by-elections when squeezed.  We remained the main challengers in a paltry field.  This reinforces the suggestion of the broader opinion polls that while the Conservative vote hasn't risen since the last election it hasn't fallen much either.

Continue reading "The nothing-in-it-for-anyone by-election" »

14 Jan 2011 08:03:50

It's time to end Rose Garden Politics

Screen shot 2011-01-14 at 06.05.01
by Paul Goodman

Soon after the Coalition was formed, David Cameron and Nick Clegg gave a memorably chummy press conference in Downing Street's rose garden.  Its easy tone and style reflected the relief which most voters will have felt at getting rid of Gordon Brown, and the hope with which many will have greeted a government of two parties working "together in the national interest".  Going further, it seemed that the aims and ambitions of both partners, set out in the Coalition Agreement, were so similar that the two might as well, in future, merge into one.

This degree of closeness hasn't done Nick Clegg much good.  The Liberal Democrats have hit their worst poll ratings ever.  Over the Christmas break, Adrian Sanders called for the Party to distance itself from the Conservatives, and trumpet its victories within Government.  Earlier this week, Rachel Sylvester reported that the Deputy Prime Minister's begun to do exactly that: "On bank bonuses, control orders, electoral reform and the House of Lords, Mr Clegg has begun to emphasise his own distinct agenda.  Yesterday... the Deputy Prime Minister even trotted out a list of Lib Dem achievements in government."

The Prime Minister should also now distance his Party from the Liberal Democrats.  Conservative backbenchers and party members alike want to see it retain its own distinct identity, and a sense that Liberal Democrat concerns are more important to Downing Street than their own helps to explain, at least in part, recent rebellions and discontent, and hence the Government working less effectively than it might.  But how's that to be done, since the two parties must work shoulder-to-shoulder in Westminster and Whitehall - merging personnel, for example, in a single Number 10 policy unit?

Here's a suggestion to start.  In future, the Party should fight by-elections to win.  As Jonathan points out today, it was never likely to win Oldham East and Saddleworth.  But the lack of an enthusiastic start made such an outcome certain, and the repercussions of Downing Street's determination to pull CCHQ's campaigning punches have been damaging.  Some of the wilder talk about electoral pacts was sparked by the Prime Minister's ambiguous early remarks wishing the Liberal Democrats well.  The Party can't afford to run its campaigning capacities down.

The Government can survive by-election reverses.  It's time to stop the puffing of electoral pacts and hints of eventual mergers, and accept that the Coalition is a short-term and not a long-term arrangement: a specific deal meeting specific needs, that's delivering a great deal of good and which should last the full course of this Parliament.  Then it's back to campaigning against each other at the next election.  Cooler, clearer dealings between the two parties would help to calm the Government, and remind the Coalition partners that their relationship is exactly that - a cohabitation, not a marriage.

14 Jan 2011 07:57:55

Ten Reflections on the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election

By Jonathan Isaby

Just before 2am saw the result declared of the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, with the Labour candidate Debbie Abrahams winning with a majority of 3,558 over the Liberal Democrats. Conservative candidate Kashif Ali came third, with his share of the vote dropping to 12.8% (from 26.4% at the general election). Here are ten reflections on the result and Conservative campaign.

Kashif Ali campaign pic 1. Kashif Ali was a first-class candidate. It was hugely impressive that he came within 2,500 votes of winning the seat last May, with few local members on the ground and none of the benefits that were afforded to target seats. He was the only candidate from the three major parties to increase his vote share at the general election and with the right back-up from the party nationally, he could have been vying for second place at the by-election. Last night's result is not a reflection on him.

2. It was always unlikely that we could win the seat. It's usual for governing parties to fare badly in by-elections and for oppositions to gain from protest votes. A governing party has not gained a seat at a by-election since 1982. Despite that fantastic result at the general election, in Oldham we started with no voting intention records and there was always the danger that starting on paper in third place would result in a classic squeeze, which is why...

3. CCHQ should have acted quickly to make the running as soon as it was clear a by-election was on the cards. Given how close Kashif came last May, the party should have upped the ante in the seat as the likelihood of a by-election grew. And once the general election result was declared void (November 5th), the by-election machine which ensured victory in Crewe & Nantwich and Norwich North should have been cranked into action. Instead, as the Lib Dems made hay, the party did not formally re-select Kashif as candidate until mid-December - the last of the three main parties formally to pick their candidate. As Tim blogged before Christmas, it is the first fortnight that defines a by-election campaign and determines who wins and loses. During the first fortnight Labour and the Lib Dems were making the running and we were barely out of the blocks.

Lib Con rosette 4. Party activists felt let down that helping the Lib Dems was discussed at the highest echelons of the party. David Cameron wished the Liberal Democrats well. On Wednesday's Daily Politics, Philip Hammond allowed himself to be drawn into saying that he'd rather see a Lib Dem victory than a Labour victory. And there was of course the revelation on Christmas Eve that the Cabinet, reportedly at the prompting of Andrew Mitchell, discussed how to maximise the Liberal Democrats' chances of winning the by-election. These interventions all conveyed the message that the Conservative effort was half-hearted and that the some of the party's most senior figures would be comfortable with - or were even keen to work towards - a Lib Dem victory. Whilst the Coalition somewhat changes the dynamics of electoral politics, the Conservative Party should still be fighting contests competitively against the Lib Dems - as they will doubtless continue to do against us.

5. The Conservative campaign was the least visible of the three main parties. The figures in the Populus poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft conducted on January 5th-6th speak for themselves. Asked if they had seen various parties' leaflets or candidates the Tories registered third in voter awareness:

Picture 19

6. By-elections need bodies on the ground and the party did not do enough to get them there. With inclement weather and Christmas holiday season, it was not the ideal time for a by-election campaign - although those were clearly equal handicaps for all parties. Whereas in previous by-elections - including those where the Conservatives began far more votes behind - MPs and candidates were whipped to make three campaign visits, there were no such instructions at this contest. I accept that some were put out on previous occasions at the tone of the orders that were issued, but here things went to the other extreme. Indeed, it wasn't until I pointed out on ConHome on the morning of December 17th that those on the candidates' list had not even been notified about it - let alone had it suggested that they needed to put in multiple appearances if they ever wanted a parliamentary career - that they were invited to lend a hand.

7. The Tory campaign lacked a buzz. I spent time in both Crewe & Nantwich and Norwich North during those by-elections and the atmosphere in Oldham for the two days I was there last week was, I'm afraid, just not comparable. The Conservative campaign simply lacked that sense of urgency and energy which I witnessed in those previous contests. I don't blame Darren Mott, Andrew Stephenson MP and those party staff billeted to Oldham for that - it stems from the attitude conveyed by the party leadership as discussed above.

8. Labour have pinpointed crime and justice issues as a vulnerability for the Conservatives. Those are the biggest political issues which Labour ran with in their literature and I would anticipate a continued onslaught on a national level over the coming months attacking "police cuts" and Ken Clarke's prisons policy.

9. But take heart from the polling about Labour's underlying weaknesses. Labour may have won the by-election, but the underlying statistics for them do not bode well. Again, as the Populus poll for Lord Ashcroft found, in two key determinants of long-term voting behaviour - party leader standing and economic trustworthiness - they were still losing in this constituency.

10. There will be more bloody noses at future by-elections, but the party must continue to put up a fight for every vote. The party succeeded in creating a fantastic by-election winning machine for those famous victories in Crewe in 2008 and Norwich in 2009. In particular we came to outclass the Lib Dems, formerly the past masters at snatching seats at by-elections. That machine should be kept in tact. Sure, from the position of being in government, these contests are going to be harder to fight, and we musn't be unrealistic about our chances of winning seats that are always going to be difficult - Barnsley Central springs to mind, for example. But we must ensure that we always give voters the opportunity to vote for a Conservative candidate who has the 100% support of the party.

> Paul writes this mornig that now it is time to end Rose Garden politics

1 Jan 2011 20:59:43

Mark Pritchard MP warns "purple plotters" against a "Frankenstein" merger of the Conservatives and Lib Dems

Tim Montgomerie

You may have missed the big story in Christmas Eve's Independent but it was genuinely big and has been overlooked since: the Cabinet discussed how they might help the Liberal Democrat candidate win in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election. Publicly senior Tories are backing Kashif Ali. Privately they are backing the Lib Dem.

It's only the latest sign of a movement towards turning the coalition-of-temporary-convenience into an ongoing alliance. John Major and four Tory MPs (Nick Boles, Glyn Davies, Peter Lilley and Jacob Rees-Mogg) have already backed joint candidates. The Sunday Telegraph splashed last week with the news that a senior minister also backed the project.

Screen shot 2011-01-01 at 20.51.38 In tomorrow's Mail on Sunday Mark Pritchard MP writes a strongly-worded article calling on the Tory leadership to level with Tory MPs and the grassroots party:

"If there are plans to try to agree a long-term political settlement between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats beyond 2015, then senior Ministers must show due respect to the parliamentary party and the Conservative Party at large and agree to an open discussion about the merits and demerits of any such pact."

He warns that there will be "fractures" if "the parliamentary and voluntary party discover that an electoral deal is being proposed behind their backs". The over-taxed British people, worried about the European courts over-ruling UK laws, will want "a distinct and self-confident Conservative Party" at the next election, Pritchard writes, not "a 2015 Frankenstein or political chimera".

There is a calculated slipperiness to the language being used by senior Tories, at present. David Cameron, George Osborne and Michael Fallon have each carefully said that they "expect" Conservatives to fight as Conservatives at the next election. Mark Pritchard has seen through the formula and calls for clarity from the leadership:

"There should be an early and unequivocal statement from the highest level of the Party that no electoral pacts – assembly, regional or local – have been agreed or are being attempted. Further, that no coalition agreement has been agreed, or is being proposed, beyond the current Parliament. At the next General Election, the Conservative Party must fight to win – to win an outright majority and send the Liberal Democrats packing. It is the ‘temporary’ nature of the existing political settlement from which the Coalition draws its strength – not the prospect of its permanence."

[The Mail on Sunday has given ConHome advance sight of the article. Here's the link to the full piece.]

30 Dec 2010 06:23:36

More evidence that Downing Street wants the Liberal Democrats to win in Oldham East and Saddleworth

by Paul Goodman

The classic bar chart election tactic is familiar.  It shows your own party neck and neck with another, and yet another - the one whose vote you want to squeeze - third, together with the slogan "It's a two horse race - X can't win here".

In the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, one would expect X - from the Party's point of view - to be the Liberal Democrats, since Labour looks to come either first or second.  Conservative leaflets and statements would therefore say: "It's a two horse race - the Liberal Democrats can't win here." (Using current national opinion polls to illustrate the point.)

Odd, then, that Sayeeda Warsi said on the Party's website in the wake of her campaign visit yesterday -

With so many people here on the ground listening to constituents, this campaign is certainly a three horse race."

Just in case readers don't get the message, Michael Fallon repeats it -

This is a definitely a three horse race and with just two weeks left it is all to play for.”

Curious, again.  Perhaps I'm missing a campaigning trick, or am short of imagination, but the simplest explanation is that CCHQ's trying to suggest that the vote of the third party is strong.  The third party being, of course...the Liberal Democrats.

Such a decision would be above CCHQ's pay grade.  It could only come from Downing Street which, we read, wants the Liberal Democrats to win - and the Party to lose - in order to prop up the Coalition.  Jonathan grasped the point early in detail, as did senior backbenchers even earlier.

Call me a cynic, but the simplest explanation, in this case, strikes me also as being the best.

24 Dec 2010 07:00:22

The Cabinet discussed last week how to help the Lib Dems win in Oldham East and Saddleworth

By Jonathan Isaby

LibCon-rosette-with-shadow Last week I questioned whether CCHQ was taking the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election seriously amidst concerns brought to me by many that the party wanted to maximise the chances of the Lib Dems gaining the seat from Labour.

I repeated this concern in a report on yesterday's Today programme, during which Baroness Warsi insisted that the party was taking the campaign "extremely seriously".

So I am shocked and unnerved in equal measure by the news in today's Independent that the Cabinet last week discussed how to maximise the Liberal Democrats' chances of winning the by-election.

The paper's political editor, Andrew Grice, reports:

"Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative International Development Secretary, is believed to have called on his party to do everything possible to help the Liberal Democrats beat Labour in the 13 January contest.

"The by-election was discussed when the Cabinet reviewed the Coalition’s strategy for 2011 on Tuesday, The Independent has learnt. There was a brief “political session”, without civil servants present, at the end of the Cabinet’s weekly meeting.

"Cabinet sources say David Cameron and other ministers did not disagree with Mr Mitchell’s remarks. But some of his Tory colleagues were angry and surprised because – in public – the Tories insist they are fighting to win the by-election in what is seen as a three-way marginal."

"The Cabinet talks will infuriate Tory traditionalists, who suspect that Mr Cameron would be happy for the Liberal Democrats to win the Oldham East contest. A week ago, he said he “wished them well” in the by-election but insisted the Tories were fighting to win it."

As it bids to repair the country's economy, the Coalition has my full support, but it is vital that its two constituent parties retain their independence and continue to fight all elections as separate entities. The party leadership should not forget that 79% of Tory members want to see the Conservatives governing alone rather than in Coalition after the next general election.

> Nominations closed for the by-election yesterday and you can click here to see the full list of candidates.

9 Nov 2010 08:52:40

Tory MPs fear Bercow's delay of 'Woolas by-election' will favour LibDems

By Tim Montgomerie

In the Commons yesterday the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, said that he would not be calling an immediate by-election in OIdham East and Saddleworth. He is giving time for Mr Woolas to appeal. This, The Telegraph notes, was what his wife, Sally Bercow, had urged him to do, on national television, on Sunday.

The Daily Mail is furious:

"Instead of ordering an immediate by-election, Speaker John Bercow decides Mr Woolas should first be allowed to exhaust the appeals system. Once again Parliament seemingly looks after its own, and to hell with the Oldham electorate which the ex-Labour minister so wilfully deceived. If Mr Woolas had a shred of decency, he would have fallen on his sword after last Friday’s devastating verdict, the first of its kind for 99 years. What a pity that when he failed to do so, Speaker Bercow (who was urged by his unelected, Labour-supporting wife to go soft on Mr Woolas) did not swiftly end this sorry saga."

Screen shot 2010-11-09 at 08.43.00 Some Tory MPs see the delay as a gift to the Liberal Democrats. First leaflets in a campaign are important for setting the nature of the race. The Liberal Democrats were out in force at the weekend with a leaflet (on right, taken from Twitter) arguing that the by-election would be a two horse race between the Labour party and the Conservatives. In fact it could have been a three horse race. The LibDems have slumped in the polls since the election and the Tories were just 2,500 votes shy of victory in May.

CCHQ has not been active in the seat yet and this has raised fears - noted by Paul Goodman on Sunday - that the Tory leadership wants to give Nick Clegg an opportunity for a morale boosting win for his party.

Another few days and it might be impossible for the Conservative candidate to prevent LibDem momentum and the turning of the by-election into a straight Lab v LibDem contest. Oldham East, one unhappy Tory MP told me at the weekend, is exactly the kind of seat we need if we are to become a majority party. We cannot, they said, afford to surrender it to the Liberal Democrats.

7 Nov 2010 17:50:56

Senior backbenchers fear that Cameron wants the Liberal Democrats to win the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election

By Paul Goodman

Their reasoning is as follows.  The Prime Minister's political priority is to keep the Coalition together.  It's hard to see the Party pulling out of the arrangement.  It's easier to imagine the Liberal Democrats doing so: one doesn't need to list the rows that have taken place over VAT, student finance, housing benefit, the immigration cap and so on to prove the point (though some of the Government's biggest disagreements, such as those over prisons policy or the EU, are concentrated within one of the Coalition parties, the Conservatives, rather than between them).  The Liberal Democrats are a democratic party - as the Conservative Party is not - and Nick Clegg ultimately has to heed his MPs and members.

The opinion polls are a point of pressure on both - and the bulk of the spending scaleback, plus the pain it will cause, has scarcely begun to be implemented.  As a guide to what will happen at the next election, the polls are useless.  As a snapshot of present opinion, they're probably accurate enough, and they show that the party's ratings have plummetted: some surveys find that over half its support has gone.  Such findings don't exactly boost Liberal Democrat morale.  However, it would get a fillip were the party, in the face of the polling, to win the Oldham East and Saddleworth East by-election - and the Coalition, in consequence, would be strengthened (just a little, for a while.)

After all, the Liberal Democrats lost the seat six months ago by only 103 votes.  Therefore, senior Conservative backbenchers argue, David Cameron has an incentive to see them win it.  If the Party had come a bad third last May, they themselves and most of their colleagues would probably be of the same mind: they'd be willing to write the seat off in order to buttress the Coalition.  However, the Party came not a bad third, but a good one.  It gained 11,773 votes.  Phil Woolas, for Labour, took only 14,186.  So the Tories came in less than 2,500 votes behind.  On paper, the seat's a three-way marginal.  Part of it was in the former constituency of Littleborough and Saddleworth, held by the Party for over ten years.

Now think on.  If the seat reflects the national poll trend during the by-election - and it's sensible not to write off this possibility, even likelihood - the Liberal Democrat vote will collapse, and both the Conservatives and, in particular, Labour will pick up the pieces.  The most likely outcome (although the circumstances in which the by-election's been called render the result unpredictable) is a Labour hold, but if the Party's got a good shot of coming second it should surely - these backbenchers told me yesterday - strive to come first.  However, they added, Downing Street won't want it to, before launching into the explanation that I've tried to set out above.  Sources within the Government confirmed this afternoon that while the Liberal Democrats are already busy in the seat (see this and this on Twitter), CCHQ hasn't yet stirred.

They're surely right.  Indeed, each main party's got reasons to hope the poll takes place without anyone much noticing: the Liberal Democrats, because they'll probably lose; the Party, for the reasons I've explained, and Labour, because of the back story of why the by-election's being held in the first place.  If the Liberal Democrats failing to win the poll meant the end of the Coalition, I'd be rooting for them to win - since I want the Government, for all its flaws, to survive and prosper.  But this isn't the case: the Coalition will survive the loss by its minor partner of one by-election.  William Hague confirmed earlier today that the Party will fight the by-election. It should do so to win.