Lord Ashcroft: My focus groups in both by-election battlegrounds find the Tory vote halved on 2019

17 Jun

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

By-elections are hardly ever convenient for a government, but next week’s contests in marginal Wakefield and supposedly safe Tiverton & Honiton are especially inopportune.

The events that precipitated each of them have hardly helped, judging from my focus groups of 2019 Conservatives in both constituencies this week.

“It’s a bit more serious than partygate, isn’t it,” as a man in the West Yorkshire seat put it. “OK, he was found guilty but the thing that got me was that part of the Tory party was told before he was elected. They knew beforehand but stood by him.”

Not everyone agreed (“it was an individual – people like that can get into everywhere”) but there was no doubt the former MP Imran Khan’s offence had “tarnished things.”

In Devon, some were sorry to see the demise of Neil Parrish. “Being a farmer, I think it’s a shame. He was a farmer himself and he was a good advocate for us.”

Even so, he had to go. “There’s a combine called the Dominator, so I can see that, but he did do it a second time. He’s done the right thing and resigned. It’s what it was, silly boy, and it’s a shame because he was a good MP.”

Some of the women took a different view. “I thought he was a right numpty before that,” said one, “so it wasn’t a surprise. I just thought, you are such an idiot.” Even so:

“I think it might not have been a bad thing for the Conservatives because the new lady, Helen, seems really good. She was a teacher. She knocked on my door yesterday. There was something refreshing about her. She wasn’t a middle-aged man, she didn’t embody the typical Conservative MP, so that’s swaying me towards her.”

“If his face comes through my letterbox again…”

Participants in both constituencies had been deluged with literature (“I had nine from the Lib Dems last week, all the same person, Richard Ford. If his face comes through my letterbox again… My dog doesn’t eat the post but now I wish he did”).

But despite the circumstances and the frantic local campaigns, national issues would dominate most people’s decisions – not least their view of the prime minister.

There was no appetite for another confidence vote, which many would see as a distraction from real priorities (“it’s over and done with, they need to forget about this and focus their time on things that matter and moving forward”).

At the same time – there being no constitutional requirement for voters to be consistent – some in both places said they could not vote Conservative again while Boris Johnson was in charge.

“He stood up in the House of Commons and said, ‘I have been informed that no rules were broken at the parties I didn’t go to’. Then you find out that he was at them, which was a blatant lie to everyone in the country. I can’t trust a single word that comes out of Boris’s mouth from now on.”

You trusted every word before? “No, but I could trust a percentage of them. Now it’s zero trust.”

“The fact that he can’t even brush his hair in the morning has really started to grate on me.”

Some said that, for them, the revelations had tipped the balance against him: “He’s a character, a bit of a geezer in an Eton sort of way, but there’s a fulcrum isn’t there? And I think he’s slightly tipped that fulcrum now. He’s gone from being the loveable rogue to being someone who’s lost credibility”; “The fact that he can’t even brush his hair in the morning has really started to grate on me.”

Yet evidence of partygate fatigue was abundant, especially in Devon: “I think with what’s going on around the world, there’s a lot more important issues than a few MPs having a beer and a get-together”; “I lost a family member in the pandemic who I didn’t see, so I get why people are angry, but it’s done. There’s no point in just going over and over it”; “Labour just use it as a campaigning thing to bitch about the Conservatives. I’m a bit over it to be honest.”

“There are exactly the same pictures of Starmer with a few of them eating and drinking.”

Moreover, it was clear that for many voters the issue was no longer an exclusively Johnsonian or even Tory problem, but a case of class misconduct reminiscent of the expenses scandal. “It’s just about which of them get found out,” a woman in Wakefield observed. “They deny it and deny it until there’s proof.”

“They’re both as bad as each other,” said another constituent. “There are exactly the same pictures of Starmer with a few of them eating and drinking. And it’s like, hang on a minute”; “It depends what’s going to become of beergate or currygate or whatever it is. He’s been pointing the finger at Boris, but give it a few weeks and we might all be pointing the finger at him.”

Keir Starmer’s pledge to resign if fined by Durham police had impressed some voters (“I give him some credibility for that”) but carried clear potential pitfalls.

If, as seems possible, the constabulary concludes that rules were broken but declines to issue a fixed penalty notice, any attempt to stay in the job would be met with disdain. “The principle of what he said was that if I broke the law I will stand down”; “It would just be a clever way of getting out of it. He’s going to get away with it, isn’t he?”

“If you sign something, you bloody well do it. You can’t just say ‘we’re going to break the law’.”

When asked what they thought of Johnson’s premiership aside from partygate (an admittedly “Other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs Lincoln”-type question), there were plenty of supplementary complaints.

If spiralling living costs were not the government’s fault, the help on offer seemed to many like a drop in the ocean (“when they did the fuel duty decrease it went down 5p and then up 10p the next day”).

Levelling up sounded more like a slogan than a policy (“I believed it, but I don’t believe it now. They put in little bits of money so they can say they’re doing it, but it’s not proper long-term investment that will improve the economy”).

Some were aghast at the government’s position on the Northern Ireland Protocol (“If you sign something, you bloody well do it. You can’t just say ‘we’re going to break the law’. You can’t behave like that”).

“I don’t think Boris has had a fair crack at being prime minister.”

But there was also a widespread feeling that the Government’s pre-partygate record was not too bad: “I think the man’s a bumbling idiot, but he’s done a fantastic job under the circumstances. The vaccine rollout was the best in the world;” “I thought the furlough scheme was brilliant. I was really impressed by that.”

Most thought the response to Ukraine had been good given the constraints, and views on the Rwanda policy were no worse than mixed. Indeed, some felt that despite being in the job for nearly three years, Johnson had not yet had a real chance to show what he could do:

“I don’t think Boris has had a fair crack at being prime minister. He got in and then boom, covid hit. So how much of his time has been focused on this rather than what he set out to do?” “We voted him in before covid, and the bloke’s had a shit time, hasn’t he? I can’t understand why anyone would want the job of leading the country.”

“A rich kid trying to get down with the poor kids. It just doesn’t ring true.”

But there was precious little enthusiasm for Labour, even among the Tories’ sternest critics. Though Starmer was an improvement on his predecessor, this did not mean they were impressed: verdicts in Wakefield included “sneaky” and “false”.

“I felt that Corbyn was more genuine, even though I didn’t agree with the things he stood for. Whereas for Starmer my word would be ‘sly’;” “He spends more time slagging Boris Johnson off than putting something forward. I know it’s part of the job, but it’s the same thing every bloody day;” “A rich kid trying to get down with the poor kids. It just doesn’t ring true.”

While Labour had a new leader they still seemed:

“London-centric. They’ve lost their roots. They’ve got a perfect opportunity, a government losing credibility, a cost-of-living crisis, but they haven’t come up with alternative solutions, they’re talking about things like transgender. People want to know if they’re going to have the money to pay the bills. They’re too much into what’s seen to be right rather than doing what’s right.”

For a few, Starmer would do, but even here the endorsements felt grudging.

“I’m not particularly keen on Starmer but I think he could get the job done. He’s still very upper class but it’s not the sort of Spitting Image thing we’ve had for the last two years. It’s been like watching the Muppet Show.”

“I was frightened of Corbyn, but I’m not frightened of Starmer.”

Significantly, though, he had managed to neutralise the fear of a Labour government that had worked to the Tories’ advantage. “I was frightened of Corbyn, but I’m not frightened of Starmer,” one man in the Devon seat told us – an important point where the prospect of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition could be a central Tory theme at a general election.

“I thought the Lib Dems were good at knocking the nuttiness out of some of the Tory policies in the coalition, so maybe if they were with Labour they would do the same.”

Not that the Lib Dems had made much of an impact on our participants, leaflets aside.

“They’re the Labrador Party, they hoover up all the crumbs off the carpet and make a big thing about it. There’s no real policies or anything in place. Ed Davey is not the most magnetic personality in the world either, is he?”

Even so, some said the party would make a useful repository for protest votes in the by-election, though perhaps a temporary one:

“On the ballot there should be an addendum under the Lib Dem box saying, ‘We’re only voting for you because we’re traditional Tories, but get your act together because you’re doing a bad job’.”

“I want to give him a kicking but I’m struggling with the mindset that they’re all the same.”

Others said they found the alternatives so underwhelming that they would make the same point by staying at home. “I want to give him a kicking but I’m struggling with the mindset that they’re all the same;” “I want to give my vote so someone who will make a difference, but who is that? I’d vote Green, but I want my vote to be useful.”

Anecdotally, around half the 2019 Tories in our groups said they would probably switch or stay at home next Thursday, giving no reason to doubt the received wisdom that both seats will change hands. But on the evidence of these groups, their significance as predictors of the next general election is limited.

Some have decided: “We need some consistency. It’s been like a soap opera – we’ve had Brexit, then covid, and since then it’s been a complete bitch-fest. We need to move forward,” said one participant; “If Boris Johnson is leader of the Conservatives in two years’ time I will not vote for them,” said another.

But when it came to choosing a new government, most had a long way to go: “I would struggle with Boris because I think he’s dishonest and an embarrassment to the country. But whether I’m happy with the other political parties, that is the more difficult question;” “There’s a lot of water to go under bridges. Let’s see what happens”.

“You need something about you to run the country, don’t you. That’s why I liked Boris. I think he’s lost a little bit. He doesn’t seem as carefree and easy going as he did, which is understandable. But I still think he’s got something about him. Let’s see what the next part of the movie brings.”

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Khan resigns, and the Prime Minister faces a Red Wall test in Wakefield

14 Apr

Imran Ahmad Khan has decided to resign as Member of Parliament, meaning that Boris Johnson now faces an electoral test in a bona fide Red Wall constituency.

According to his statement, this is because the drawn-out nature of legal proceedings mean that he won’t be able to effectively advocate for his constituents for months yet, having already left Wakefield “without visible parliamentary representation for a year.” He adds:

“Even in the best case scenario, anticipated legal proceedings could last many more months. I have therefore regrettably come to the conclusion that it is intolerable for constituents to go years without an MP who can amplify their voices in parliament.”

This may be the case; other media reports suggest he did intend to stick it out and fight his appeal as an MP before the strong backlash against Crispin Blunt’s supportive comments earlier this week.

Either way, the Prime Minister now has a very important fight on his hands. Wakefield was one of the more spectacular prizes won in 2019, having previously been held by Labour since 1931. Whoever is selected to fight it will be defending a majority of just 3,358.

The result will give Tory MPs hard, real-world evidence about the impact of the Paterson fiasco and Partygate on the Prime Minister’s and the Party’s standing with the voters in the Red Wall. They have been reluctant to strike so far, but a Labour win will be harder to ignore than the polls.

Wakeford should resign and fight a by-election in Bury South

23 Jan

This week, Guido Fawkes reminded us that Christian Wakeford, the Labour MP for Bury South, co-sponsored and voted for a private members bill in 2020 that would “enable the recall of Members of the House of Commons who voluntarily change their political party affiliation; and for connected purposes.” Wakeford’s Law would have caused a by-election to be triggered if, in a relevant constituency, a petition demanding it, gathered ten per cent of the eligible electors over a period of eight weeks.

Steve Baker, the Conservative MP for Wycombe, spoke against the proposal – as he felt it didn’t go far enough:

“I am in favour of full recall—I prefer to avoid total recall—albeit on a threshold that must be high enough to avoid vexatious political activity. However, I would like to have full recall, by which I mean recall without conditions.”

Anyway, surely in the circumstances that have arisen, Wakeford should resign and fight a by-election. An opinion poll shows a big majority believing this should take place. I haven’t heard any BBC interviewers raise this interesting but unhelpful question with Wakeford or any of his fellow Labour politicians.

Yet surely it’s a subject that must have been discussed by Wakeford during the weeks of clandestine meetings with Labour representatives while plotting his defection. With the current climate, Labour should be well placed to win a by-election in Bury South.

So why do they not seem to relish the challenge? By-election campaigns cost money and Labour is reported to be “on the verge of bankruptcy.” Would the Bury South Constituency Labour Party select Wakeford as their candidate? By-elections, under Labour’s rules, do give power to Labour’s National Executive: “in the case of an emergency, it shall take whatever action that may be necessary to meet the situation.” Would imposing Wakeford be justified as an “emergency” on the basis that the CLP would not acquiesce otherwise? One for the lawyers to ponder, I suppose.

If such hurdles were overcome the by-election campaign might still prove problematic. Bury South has a large Jewish community.  Angela Epstein, one of its members, has written powerfully in the Independent about her sense of betrayal:

“As our new MP, Wakeford swiftly established himself as a sensitive and understanding supporter of a Jewish community still reeling from the Corbyn years. He understood what we had suffered. It makes his willingness to cross the floor even more unpalatable. Yes, Keir Starmer has shown credible and declared intent to stamp out antisemitism within his party. But equally this was a man who campaigned for Corbyn in 2019 and would have worked with him had he become prime minister. During his own leadership campaign Starmer was also reluctant to criticise his predecessor, since he remained popular among the party membership…

“Of course Wakeford’s defection isn’t just a stinging act of disloyalty for his Jewish constituents. Many residents of Bury South will have voted for the 38-year-old candidate as part of the Boris boom – keen to ensure that Labour, with its chaotic agenda of stirring class conflict, ruinous big state ideas and quasi Marxist politics, didn’t have a chance. And yet it hurts so much for Jewish people because we looked to Wakeford as our protector. An assured parliamentary voice who could stand up for this community.”

Labour’s continuing failure to deal with anti-semitism is demonstrated not far from Bury with the disturbing situation in Blackburn.

By signing up as a Labour Party member, Wakeford has undertaken to “accept and conform” to the Party’s principles – including that it is a “socialist” party. Thus far Wakeford has explained his switch to the Labour Party as being prompted by his antipathy to Dominic Cummings, Owen Paterson, and Downing Street drinks parties. But when did Wakeford convert to socialism? Presumably, it took place within the last year – as on January 18th 2021, he wrote:

“Labour – bunch of c****.”

Another puzzle is that a month ago Wakeford was among the 99 Conservative MPs who voted against the Plan B restrictions. Is it not a bit odd that he’s now switched to Labour, who complained the measures did not go far enough and imposed tighter restrictions in Wales? Wakeford might also face disobliging queries about his expenses with the revelation that he was in the top ten MPs for spending on travel and food costs charging the taxpayer £13,899 for this in the last financial year.

So one can see why Wakeford has evidently decided against a by-election. The question is whether it should be his decision. It is a wider question of political accountability. If MPs are sentenced to be imprisoned for more than 12 months they automatically have to stand down. That is reasonable. But in other cases, a recall mechanism should apply. (I would like to see it for Police and Crime Commissioners as well.) I suppose we could still have various standards committees and commissioners to carry out investigations and publish their findings. However, the power would be with the electorate.

Our politics is drifting towards politicians being too beholden to officialdom. The Electoral Commission imposes bureaucratic burdens on political parties while failing to robustly and impartially uphold the democratic process. Peers complained this week of a “sinister” threat to freedom of speech by the House of Lords Commissioners for Standards. Supposedly we are eagerly waiting for a civil servant called Sue Gray to decide if the Prime Minister should be sacked.  Of course, she has no authority to do anything of the kind. She may give a verdict on whether the “gatherings” in the Downing Street gardens were within the official definition of work events allowed under the regulations – or were parties and broke the rules. Ministers and Shadow Ministers continuously take to the airwaves to speak of Gray with great reverence and assure us of their “high regard” for her. But it is the MPs who decide who is Prime Minister. We decide who the MPs are. Those fundamentals should be reasserted and strengthened. The retreat into the prissy obfuscation of politicians relying on officials for moral authority has gone too far. We need to take back control. Giving the people of Bury South their say would be a good start.

Shastri-Hurst selected to defend North Shropshire in by-election

13 Nov

Congratulations to Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst, who has been selected as the candidate to succeed Owen Paterson in North Shropshire (Conservative majority: 22,949).

His website has gone private, presumably preceding a makeover, but previously described him as “a veteran, surgeon, and barrister” as well as “a senior officer within the Voluntary Conservative Party”. The BBC reports that he’s a former Army Medical Officer and “honorary NHS consultant”. He has also contributed to this site.

Alex Morton: Ministers can have more houses or higher immigration. But they won’t be able to get away with both.

21 Jun

Alex Morton is Head of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and is a former Number Ten Policy Unit Member.

A very large part of the Chesham and Amersham result was driven by the shamelessly and ruthlessly NIMBYist approach of the Liberal Democrats on both housing and HS2.

As Ed Davey put it just before the election, “we are seeing a promising number of Conservatives switching to us, because they want to say no… we don’t want these planning reforms.”

This now-notorious Lib Dem leaflet sets out the strategy: no policies bar opposing development. MPs who campaigned state the issues on the doorstep were new housing and HS2. Pure NIMBYism is a powerful force in the South of England.

So how do the Conservatives tackle the issue? The Government certainly needs to adjust its course – but it cannot ditch planning reform altogether. Ultimately, we still desperately need more homes, especially in London and the South-East where pressures are greatest. The current reforms contain a great deal of good.

But the truth is another issue sits alongside planning, which Westminster is not focusing on, but which sits on voters’ and MPs minds when contemplating new homes: immigration.

The politics of new homes in London and the South is complicated

A critical political argument for new housebuilding is it will protect the Conservatives majority longer term. Homeowners vote Tory, renters don’t. The argument made to Southern MPs is more homes and more homeowners will secure their electoral base.

But, while correct on a macro scale, this argument is not necessarily so on the micro. Many MPs note that the new homes built in their constituencies are often most attractive to, and affordable for, those leaving London. But as London’s housing pressures spill over into the Home Counties, so do London’s political attitudes.

This helps to explain why commuter constituencies like Canterbury and Bedford are becoming marginals: internal migration drives up anti-Conservative ex-London voter numbers. While Brexit accelerated this, between 2010 and 2015 Outer London (the ‘doughnut’ that twice elected Boris Johnson as Mayor) swung from Tory to Labour, even as the rest of the country moved the other way.

In the North, nice new homes often bring Tory voters – as Peter Mandelson noticed revisiting his old Hartlepool seat.  But new housing in the south annoys existing Conservative voters without always bringing new ones.  The conversion process will still probably work longer-term, as new voters relax into home ownership and shed London attitudes.  But MPs understandably think in five or ten year horizans.

Making things worse, many Southern MPs face not Labour, but the Lib Dems or the Greens, boasting to middle-class voters they are pro-immigration (unlike ‘nasty’ Tories), while also shamelessly arguing they will block new homes locally. Labour cannot do this, as it knows that it must deliver if it wins.

Meanwhile, Tory-inclined voters are susceptible to another simple message: new homes are only needed due to migration. They feel the problem is hundreds of thousands of new arrivals a year, who need extra homes, meaning concreting over the South-East.

The current system of housing targets enables a dishonest political debate

So how do Conservatives tackle this problem? This, I am afraid, is where it gets technical. But it first involves admitting voters have a point about immigration.

Currently, Government housing targets are based on a 2014 estimate (using data from 2012-2014) that we are creating 214,000 new households a year. Various tweaks are done to turn this household number into a housing target, including adjustments based on affordability. The end result is a national target for new housing of 297,000 a year.

The 214,000 households figure assumes net international migration (i.e. the difference between those arriving and leaving) of around 170,000 people annually (see here). So, under current estimates, around 37 per cent of all new homes are needed due to net international migration (see here). So the anti-immigration lobby have a point. But even with zero net migration, we would need many more homes.

However, immigration is very clearly pushing up the numbers needed, and has a disproportionate effect in the South. For the key years 2012-2014, around 50-60 per cent of net international migration went to London, the South East, and the East. This pushed up their housing need most. Even pre-pandemic, London’s population would be falling without international migration, but international migration drives it back up, rippling out over time in terms of housing targets across the South.

Why does this matter politically? It shows it is logically absurd for any party to promise both higher levels of net immigration and yet lower housebuilding in the South. But that is exactly what the Lib Dems and Greens do. And they get away with it because of the current lack of transparency around housing need calculations.

We need to include net migration figures in the local plans

We’d need more homes even if with zero net migration – because we have not built enough for years. As I pointed out in my day job at the Centre for Policy Studies, the 2010s were the worst modern decade for housebuilding – and every decade has got worse since the 1960s.

But one way for the Conservatives to change the politics of planning – and show their immigration controls are crucial – is a clearer link between migration numbers and local housing need. The new Planning Bill should ensure that each local plan periodically adjusts housing targets and housing need in line with net migration. This would inject honesty into the housing debate.

As noted, current housing plans are based on net international migration of 170,000 a year. If net migration fell to 50,000, we would need 60,000 fewer homes a year (assuming roughly one home for two new people). If it rose to 350,000, it would mean 90,000 more homes each year.

If the Liberal Democrats, or the Greens, want to argue for more immigration nationally, it should be clear this means more homes in each area. This would fundamentally change the debate in the South. In Chiltern District Council, home to Chesham and Amersham, the difference between annual national net immigration going down to 50,000 or up to 300,000 would be several thousand extra homes in the next ten years. Pro-migration, NIMBY parties would have to choose.

The worst outcome would be higher net immigration and weakened planning reform

The worst outcome for home ownership is higher net immigration plus weaker planning reform. Yet in the wake of Chesham & Amersham, this seems very likely. Currently, annual net migration is running at 281,000 – or around 110,000 more people a year than 2014 projections. This means 55,000 more homes a year since the 2014 projections – more than the entire rise planned last year after the planning reform row.

Higher migration but no planning reform is also the worst possible result for the Conservative Party. It would exacerbate London and the South’s problems – creating new voters who don’t vote Tory through higher migration, annoying existing Tory voters with new homes, but not delivering enough home ownership to capture new voters.

Housing numbers and migration are an example of Morton’s political triangle. You cannot please everyone. Government policy is currently pro-migration (in numbers not rhetoric) and pro-housebuilding. Both positions put off voters in Chesham. Yet ditching planning reforms while keeping higher migration dooms the Tories in London and the South longer term. The best shot for the Conservatives in the South is more homes and lower immigration – and this, not ditching planning reform, should be their next step.

Richard Holden: Levelling up is for voters in the South as well as my constituents in Durham

21 Jun

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Village Hall, Delves Lane, Consett, Co. Durham

It’s a bit like the fabled London bus: you wait ages for a by-election, then four come along at once. For the Westminster bubble – the media, politicians, psephologists and the commentariat – these provide much-needed fresh meat for broadcast comment and column inches. They are the perfect base on which all can retrospectively build their latest pet theory, or justify their most recent musing.

Last month, Hartlepool and Airdrie and Shotts were the focus. In a fortnight, the bubble’s eyes will alight upon Batley and Spen. Until then, the Chesham and Amersham result provides nourishment for this week.

Like an oversized Christmas turkey, the result will be dissected and eaten, the remaining meat will sandwiched and eaten cold for days, and the carcass will then be picked over by someone in need a morsel. Finally, the bones will be boiled up for stock, and set aside to form the basis of future fodder.

Today, we’re at the sandwich stage. Edward Davey, a man uniquely blessed both with the appearance and charisma of a microwaved jacket potato, is clearly relishing some rare limelight for the Lib Dems. The dead parrot is very much alive, he cries! And he repeats this on every media outlet going, spreading his orangey-yellow spin-sauce as thick and fast has he can.

Former Conservative Cabinet Ministers, sat on colossal majorities – thanks to our Prime Minister’s clear stance on Brexit, rather than their own failed approach – bemoan this latest by-election result. The reason for it is clear: it’s whatever pet peeve is tickling their fancy, as they charmlessly forget that they’re participants in, not commentators on, politics.

But from the conversations I’ve been having, the general noise from the bubble is drowning out a far stronger signal. In elections, as with opinion polls, you’ve got to look at trends, not individual results. The trend, rather than the by-election de jour is the same as the local election results. The Conservatives continue to perform solidly (unusually so for a party in Government), and you can see just how much trouble Labour are in. And it knows so.

The local elections of just six weeks ago showed Labour going backwards from the hammering they’d got under Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. Hartlepool added to the party’s woes. The trend has been re-enforced in Labour’s unprecedently poor showing in Chesham and Amersham. 622 votes (1.6 per cent) is abysmal, especially when you consider that, under Corbyn in the 2017 general election, Labour came second with 11,374 votes (20.6 per cent of the vote). Starmer, elected in part because it was thought he could win back more of Southern England as well as reverse the losses in the Red Wall, is now looking weaker than ever.

From the day Tony Blair became Labour leader, the party didn’t go backwards in the by-elections that other opposition parties won all the way up to 1997. Perth and Kinross, and Littleborough and Saddleworth, won by the SNP and Lib Dems respectively in 1995, both saw Labour’s vote share rise, despite the other parties taking those seats from the Conservatives. Moreover, Labour know that talk of ‘electoral pacts’ would be madness for a party that seeks to govern, or for a leader who thinks that they can become Prime Minister.

But Labour now knows that it has a leader who is incapable of winning elections. Behind the scenes, it is looking to change him, and sooner rather than later. Plans are more advanced than is widely known beyond the bubble. Both Lisa Nandy and Angela Rayner have desires for the Labour crown with campaigns ready to go, if not already fully underway.  Andy Burnham’s appetite for the leadership is so blatant it’s even being spoofed on Radio 4 comedy shows.

With Labour about to become embroiled in another testing civil war – the timing of which is dependent on just how badly this downward trend goes in the near future – Conservative MPs, wherever they represent, should cool their boots.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment, but the Government’s planning proposals haven’t even gone out to consultation yet. Everyone knows that the current system’s broken: that it works for large land-banking developers, and does very little to really drive sustainable brownfield regeneration outside the centre of our major cities. So let’s not prejudge anything.

On top of that, levelling up is an agenda for everyone because it’s explicitly not about taking from one to give to another. The clue is in the name: it’s about ensuring the provision across the country is there to meet the talents of our people. It’s as relevant to the lad in Ashford as it is for the girl in Ashington. Both want good further education provision, a good job, in time a home of their own for them and their family, good transport and broadband connectivity.

It’s about tackling the productivity issues our country faces so that we don’t have a hideous situation where we’re having to transfer vast amounts of tax around the country to perpetually subsidise some areas. The drive behind levelling up is instead ensuring that towns, villages and individuals across the country will have the jobs and access to jobs and opportunities that, in time, will enable them to pay a greater portion into the collective national pot as they get better off.

Labour don’t like levelling up because they want client communities who rely on handouts from the centre who will then, with a tug of their collective forelock, say thank you for the hand-out by re-elect Labour MPs. So, let’s not fall into the trap of its North v South drivel.

Now is not the time to be distracted by the noise. Cool heads are required – with our opponents about to plunge themselves into another bout of “the public are bonkers for not voting Labour.” As their leadership candidates jostle for the votes of an overwhelmingly out of touch metropolitan membership, we Conservatives, the party in government, must not be distracted. We need one focus, delivery of our one-nation Conservative agenda, because that’s what the public here in the village hall in Delves Lane today or in the shop next door care about. They will accept nothing less.

Reports of Johnson’s political demise are greatly exaggerated

20 Jun

Vote Leave‘s successor was Change Britain – a name that says much about the country’s decision to leave the European Union five years ago.

Brexit was a vote for economic as well as constitutional change: to shift from a model based on financial services, high immigration and London’s hinterland to one more favourable to manufacturing, lower migration and the provinces.  You might call it “levelling up”

If you doubt it, look at this constituency-based map of the results.  West and South of London, you will find a kind of Remain Square.  Its eastern boundary is Hertford and Stortford, more or less.  Its western one is Stroud.

Its northern frontier ends at Milton Keynes and its southern one at Lewes.  Admittedly, this square has a mass of holes punched into it: much of Hampshire, for example, voted Leave.  And some of the Remain majorities within it, like some Leave ones, were narrow.

Levelling up is a term of art.  It can mean enterprise zones, freeports, better schools, improving skills, devolving power – none of which necessarily imply rises in or transfers of public spending.

But to some in that Remain Square, and elsewhere, it is coming to mean taking money in higher taxes from people who live in the south and transferring it to people who live in the north.

This truth would hold had the Chesham and Amersham contest never taken place.   Obviously, it was a lousy result for the Conservatives – for the Party to lose a by-election without seeing it coming, let alone by some eight thousand votes.

There should be a searching post-mortem. But why would any canny voter back the establishment in a by-election?  Isn’t it best to send it a message – namely: “don’t take our votes for granted”?

In the north, that establishment is still Labour.  Hence Hartlepool.  In the south, it’s the pro-levelling up, Red Wall-preoccupied Conservatives.  Hence Chesham and Amersham.  Now on to Batley and Spen.

Come the next general election, the Liberal Democrats won’t be able to concentrate their resources in a single seat, as they did last week.  Nor will they necessarily be the opposition front-runner in the Remain Square, or elsewhere.

Which suggests that last month’s local elections are a better guide to the future than last week’s by-election.  Crudely speaking, they found the right-of-centre vote uniting behind the Tories, and the left-of-centre equivalent divided between Labour, the LibDems and the Greens.

ConservativeHome will take no lectures from anyone about the potential threat to the so-called “Blue Wall” – to the seats within the Remain Square that we identify.  Henry Hill published an analysis of it on this site on May 11, which we re-ran last Friday in the by-election’s wake.

But the good news for Boris Johnson is that the Blue Wall is crumbling more slowly than the red one.  So time is on his side rather than Keir Starmer’s, which is why we still believe that the Prime Minister will be pondering a dash to the polls in 2023.

The bad news for him is that no party can hold a monopoly on much of the country forever.  Tony Blair had one even more extensive than Johnson.  He got three terms out of it (which will encourage the Prime Minister), but Labour eventually ran out of time and votes.

Its backing melted away at both ends.  In the blue corner, their new-won support from 1997 eventually returned to the Tories or went LibDem.  In the red one, their base was eaten away not so much by economics as by immigration and culture.

The medium-term danger to Johnson should start kicking in – unless inflation speeds the process up – in two to three years, when the vultures from post-Brexit and post-Covid spending really start coming home to roost.  He may well be on a second term by then.

But at that point the Prime Minister could find himself trapped in what William Hague, referring to potential British membership of the euro, described as “a burning building with no exits”.

The cornerstone of Government economic policy to date is “no return to austerity” – which we crudely interpret to mean questionable control of the country’s public finances.

This being so, the only weapon left for Ministers to deploy is tax rises: and the tax burden is already forecast to hit the highest level since the late 1960s – 35 per cent of GDP by 2025/26.

We all have a way of reading into by-election results whatever we want to read into them.  Undoubtedly, HS2 was a factor in Chesham and Amersham.  So was planning.  Above all, Blue Wall voters were asking for what Red Wall ones are getting: a little bit of love and attention.

Beyond that, anti-lockdown campaigners claim that the result was powered by opposition to shutdowns.  Pro-aid ones assert that Buckinghamshire’s voters stand behind the 0.7 per cent.

Those suffering from Johnson Derangement Syndrome, such as Dominic Grieve, claim that Buckinghamshire’s “sophisticated” voters see through the Prime Minister.  But if so, why did they chuck Grieve out of Beaconsfield less than two years ago?

So we make no special claim about what happened in Chesham & Amersham last week, other than to take some of the more exotic claims with a lorryload of salt.

But we do make a forecast about what will happen there and elsewhere within the Remain Square in future – regardless of whether or not the seat, like Newbury and Christchurch and Eastbourne and other Liberal by-election gains of the past, duly returns to the Tory column.

Namely, that the good voters of Chesham and Amersham won’t tolerate more tax rises for long.  Not that voters in Red Wall or provincial English seats would do so either.

But the private sector in the Remain Square is relatively big; employment in public services relatively smaller; exposure to property and pensions taxes relatively bigger.

Sooner or later, Johnson and Rishi Sunak will have to revisit the other side of the financial sustainability ledger: spending control.  With over a third of it going on pensions and healthcare, that will mean tough choices, in Chesham, Amersham – and everywhere else.

As for the Prime Minister’s prospects, we are where we were before. He can have all the Turkmenbashi statues he wants, and more, for getting Brexit done – and for saving the country from metaphorical if not literal Dreyfus affair-style strife.

ConHome believes that he should have his chance to “Change Britain” (with a majority of 80, he has earned it; anxious backbenchers please take note) while having little confidence that he actually will.

What’s left of this term risks being frittered away in bread, summits, and circuses, Roman-style.  The possibility is frighteningly plausible.  We devoutly hope that we’re proved wrong, as we sometimes are.

David Gauke: Chesham and Amersham. Yes, a realignment is taking place in British politics. But it is likely to happen slowly.

19 Jun

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Conservative MPs should take the Prime Minister at his word. He has told them what he is going to do and they should trust him to do it. He won’t let them down. There. I have said it.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not talking about promises to level up, prioritise the education catch-up, simultaneously keep taxes and borrowing down while ending spending austerity, avoid new non-tariff barriers with EU trade, prevent new checks on Great Britain-Northern Ireland trade, stop veterans being pursued in the courts, deliver net zero without any pain for taxpayers or consumers, or maintain all existing agricultural standards at the same time as obtaining comprehensive trade deals around the world. Some of those promises might not be kept.

But when the Prime Minister says that he intends to open up on 19 July, I am sure he means it and I think he will be able to do so.

On Boris Johnson’s intentions, nobody should be in much doubt that he is an instinctively reluctant implementer of lockdowns and, if they were, the evidence of Dominic Cummings should dissuade them.

Over the course of 2021, the Prime Minister has been more cautious in unlocking (with considerable justification) but it is worth noting the reasons. Of most relevance is the fact that we have vaccines which are demonstrably the way out of lockdowns without yet further vast numbers of deaths. The existence of vaccines has meant that the end is in sight, but also that the case for caution is strengthened because further deaths are avoidable. It is this insight that has driven our lockdown policy for the last few months, and drove the decision to delay easing once again.

The Indian/Delta variant has disrupted the plans, because it is evidently much more transmissible and a single dose is less effective than against earlier strains. This has not resulted in abandoning the vaccine strategy but raising the thresholds. In broad terms, the Government has moved from being satisfied in unlocking, when 80 per cent of adults will have had the benefit of one dose and 60 per cent two, to moving up the thresholds to roughly 90 to 95 per cent and 80 per cent respectively.

A fair proportion of the Conservative Parliamentary Party is sceptical that the July unlocking will happen, presumably because they think that cases and hospitalisation will be high when the decision will be made. If that were to be the case, that might also suggest the decision to delay the June unlocking was wise.

But July 19 does – at this point – look like the right date. We will still get the benefit of summer, the long school holidays will reduce transmission and the vaccine programme will be very nearly done. Assuming that the vaccines work – and the evidence continues to be very encouraging – and we are not struck by a variant that looks as though it will escape the effects of the vaccine, the case for unlocking at that point will be very strong. I think he will do it.

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I have written elsewhere about the Chesham and Amersham by-election. It is a constituency I know well, having represented the neighbouring seat of South West Hertfordshire for some years, and I live just a short walk from the constituency boundary. The two seats have much in common.

During the course of the 2019 general election campaign I had lots of encouraging conversations – usually in Berkhamsted High Street – in which people would wish me luck before declaring that they lived in Chesham and could not vote for me. Presumably, most of those voters went Liberal Democrat on Thursday.

I have for some time argued that we are undergoing a political realignment.  As far as the Conservative retreat from the Home Counties is concerned, I think that is more likely to be apparent in by-elections before we will see it in general elections, because it is seen as risk-free to vote elsewhere. In 2019, the soft Conservative vote stayed Conservative because of the fear of Jeremy Corbyn, whereas no such threat exists in a by-election.

Even accepting all of that, the result seems to have caught most observers by surprise. Given that I am almost a local, a few people asked me if I had expected it, and I confess I hadn’t (a sharply reduced Conservative majority – yes; a comfortable Liberal Democrat majority – no).

However, on reflection, the only person in the constituency I had spoken to in the last week was the nice man from the Amersham branch of Majestic, and we didn’t discuss politics.

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As someone who is happy to defend Boris Johnson’s decision to delay the next stage in easing the lockdown, I do think he has rather got away with causing the delay in the first place. I listened to PMQs this week (as it happens, driving to receive my second dose in Watford Town Hall) and Keir Starmer asked a series of questions on the delay in restricting travel from India.

The Prime Minister responded with a series non sequiturs and evasions. Pakistan and Bangladesh went on the red list on 2 April, India (where cases were far higher) not until 19 April (and implemented four days later). I have not seen a good explanation for the difference in approach.

It is clear that the Delta variant was seeded in the UK because of extensive travel with India over that period. Despite our superior vaccine rollout (although the gap is closing by the day), the UK now has more cases per head of population than anywhere in Europe

At some point, the Government is going to have to explain what happened. If not, people will only assume it was because the Prime Minister did not want to abandon the chance to make a trip to India. It is a serious charge and deserves a serious response.

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The Chesham and Amersham by-election may be uncomfortable for the Conservatives but that is likely to be as nothing compared to the Labour discomfit if they lose Batley & Spen. In large part, this looks likely to be as a consequence of George Galloway’s campaign, and his criticism of Starmer for being insufficiently critical of Israel.

Assuming Labour loses, I wonder if the approach the Labour leadership should take is to lean into the issue and argue that – whatever the electoral consequences – the Labour Party under Keir Starmer (in contrast to his predecessor) will take a mature and balanced approach to the Middle East, and not put political expediency above responsible diplomacy.

I am not sure that is entirely true (there seems to me to be too much pandering to radical anti-Israel sentiment as it is), but it might not be a bad issue to be debating the wake of a by-election loss. Frame the debate as Starmer against the Galloway/Corbyn worldview.

As it is, Labour is in an impossible and ghastly position. It is either seen as too anti-Semitic to be elected or, in some places, not anti-Semitic enough.