Tory splits offer Labour an opportunity

by Jonathan Todd

The Tories now have a great deal of confidence after Newark, wrote the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman on 6 June. The rebelliousness of their backbenches, especially the 2010 intake, has been one of the features of this parliament. Newark marked the first time in a quarter of a century that they retained a seat in a by-election in government, which followed the local and European elections that indicated they are well placed for 2015 if they can recover those who defected from them to UKIP. The smell of success and bigger success to come, sharpened backbench Tory focus.

As soon as discipline returned to the Tory backbenches, however, it spectacularly deserted their frontbench. The mutually assured damage of public airing of policy differences between Michael Gove and Theresa May makes events inexplicable, not least as they cast a shaft of light on a political terrain that must undermine the Tory general election cause: the world beyond David Cameron. No party wants to face election with a diminished leader and Cameron is now likely to face the question that dogged Tony Blair throughout the 2005 general election: “If elected, will you serve a full term?”

A decade ago, the “buy Blair, get Brown” deal was deemed acceptable – without great enthusiasm but sufficiently palatable to return Labour to a third term in government. While George Osborne harbours hopes of becoming party leader and prime minister in the next parliament, it’s doubtful that he wishes to fight the general election on a similarly joint ticket. The antics of one of his supposed backers, Michael Gove, makes this more likely, however.

Gove has a habit of getting into unnecessary arguments. He first entered my consciousness as a panellist at a debate on the Iraq war in 2003 in Shoreditch Town Hall, organised by the Foreign Policy Centre. My only memory is of him berating an audience member for what he saw as a faulty interpretation of the Glorious Revolution. I also recall Allegra Stratton – now Newsnight’s political editor, then one of the organisers of debate – skipping about the place. I don’t know whether this reveals anything substantive about her character but the cantankerous first impression that Gove left me with does appear telling.

Not only was it calamitous for his differences with May to go public but this resulted in Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, appearing on Newsnight to make claims that put Gove in an awkward position, seeming suspiciously like Wilshaw taking the first opportunity to stick the boot in since Gove’s department was briefing against him in January. Gove is tripping up in the tangled webs that he has weaved toward no discernible purpose. Free schools are supposedly his great achievement – but these are not beyond criticism even from the newly disciplined Tory backbenches.

The reputed brains behind this policy, Dominic Cummings, is as pugnacious as Gove. The obvious post Newark strategy for the Tories was to keep hammering on about a “long term economic plan”, pointing to the economic recovery, and insisting that Labour puts all of this at risk. Cummings, though, gives the impression that the greatest risk now associated with the Tories is civil war. According to him, Cameron is “bumbling” and lacking in direction. “To get anything done you have to have priorities and there are no priorities”. He’d probably agree with Iain Martin’s recent claim that, “David Cameron’s biggest idea is that David Cameron should carry on governing”.

Without a big idea, the headline to Martin’s piece states, Cameron will lose. Uncut flagged this headline to Professor Tim Bale at the Progress Annual Conference and he questioned it, arguing that the post Newark strategy described above will be thought adequate for the Tories without augmentation with a big idea. And that might well be right. But if Cameron is to convince us that he intends to serve a full term and keep a lid on the asymmetric warfare of the Tories – it’s not just Osborne/Gove versus May but Boris Johnson undermining May also – then maybe he needs a big idea.

Without the intellectual self-confidence of Ed Miliband, Cameron may struggle to come up with one. Or conclude that it’s too much bother. But Miliband shouldn’t take too much satisfaction in this. The spectre of 2005 haunts his campaign to. Not just in the renewed prominence of Iraq in debate, which is a crisis that may help Cameron, as he is perceived to be a better leader than Miliband or Nick Clegg. Like Michael Howard in 2005, Miliband must worry that popular policies may not be enough to secure him victory.

Miliband must reassure that he’s capable of delivering what he promises and is not a leap into a left-wing unknown but the common sense way forward for the country. The reassurance that attaches to Cameron’s devil-the-country-knows corrodes as his succession battle publicly intensifies. Labour can beat the shambolic Tory party that this battle produces. But we shouldn’t rely on the Tories beating themselves. They are not completely daft. And there remains much that we can do for ourselves to maximise our chances of victory.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut 

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One Response to “Tory splits offer Labour an opportunity”

  1. Ex Labour says:

    Jonathan, your desperation gets ever more funny and your puff pieces for Miliband get more alarming.

    I liked this it made me laugh out loud “No party wants to face election with a diminished leader “. And what exactly do you think Miliband is seen as by the public ? Put him and Balls together and you get one of the most unpopular duo’s in politics. Have you not seen their ratings? They are of course openly dismissive of each others position with leaked emails showing that Milibands team are increasingly worried and angry by Balls public statements. Classic “off message” stuff, but in reality far more realistic than whats going on in “Ed’s World”.

    This was another cracker ” Without the intellectual self-confidence of Ed Miliband”. That would be the Zen Miliband, who has, even after 4 years, yet to grace us with any kind of firm policy and who has said nothing about nothing.

    There are clear factions in the Labour party its been clear for all to see over recent months with the ever growing frustration with Miliband. If Miliband was to come close to being the PM, Labour had to do a lot better in Newark, even with UKIP taking Tory votes. Labours dreadful performance went completely under the radar.

    By the way you write about him in glowing terms everytime you put a piece together, I can only assume you are a relative. Not another Miliband brother surely ?

    Bacon sarnies all round. Onward !

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