Lions led by Donkeys

This is the second of my blogs about the omnishambles Conservative Election Campaign. The first here looked at the fall out and called for the party to get rid of May. This one is going to look at the campaign most of us experienced on the ground. It was just as big a shambles as the campaign led by May, but at least it was leavened by the party’s poor bloody infantry, without whom the result would have been much, much worse.

Things were bad from the start with disputes over candidate selection. I cannot emphasise enough how important a good candidate is for a campaign, get it right and it energises activists, in marginals, a good candidate makes people from surrounding constituencies want to get out and help them, and most important of all the right candidate in the right seat offers a wide appeal to non-committed voters and possible switchers. Now, local Conservative Associations have their faults, but let’s be clear they all want a Conservative MP elected in their constituency, the officers and members know their constituency and they are far more likely than some remote figure in Central Office to understand what is likely to tickle their electorate’s erogenous zones. Unless they want to appoint the love child of Nigel Farage and Nick Griffin their advice should be heeded and every effort made to accommodate them.

This did not happen, there seemed to two main bugbears. The first was some seats quite sensibly wanted to have local candidates. In seats where you are trying to unseat the opposition this is always a shrewd move. No one likes a carpet bagger imposed from outside but this happened far too often in marginals where the party, expecting a landslide, imposed trendy young hipsters instead of gnarled old councillors who had been around the block and knew the ropes. Where you have a good local candidate anything is possible. In Westmorland and Lonsdale the Conservatives came within 800 votes of defeating a national party leader for the first time since 1931, destroying an 8000 majority in the process. But you have to wonder, if the seat had been considered winnable whether Central Office would have allowed that candidate to be selected in the first place.

The second problem with candidate selection involved safe seats who wanted to select a well known party figure. The best example of this was the farrago over selecting a candidate for Aldershot. The MP for Aldershot, Sir Gerald Howarth was standing down leaving a very tasty 14000 majority. The local party wanted their shortlist to include the MEP for South East England Dan Hannan. Lo and behold when the three person shortlist was handed down from Central Office Hannan wasn’t on it. Now I’ve been told in the past by the powers that be that Hannan is ‘difficult’. My immediate response to that is ‘so bloody what.’ Churchill was difficult, so was Thatcher and even Macmillan resigned the Conservative Party whip for a while during the thirties. As our candidate told me whilst we were campaigning we need to make the case for small government, markets and low taxation again. We do and Hannan is matchless when it comes to making that case. We need someone with his talent and eloquence making that case from the House of Commons, not festering in the dog days of the UK presence in the EU parliament.

The next issue where the campaign went seriously awry was targeting winnable seats. In 2010 and 2015 careful thought was given to the seats into which we would pour most effort. There was no such thought given to targeting this time, just ministers, candidates and activists tearing round like headless chickens in the vain pursuit of a landslide. Early in the campaign I was asked to travel to three different seats, two of them more than fifty miles away. Needless to say I gave those two a miss, especially as I had local friends who were urging me to campaign in Westmorland and Lonsdale to help drown the ‘wet lettuce’ (the affectionate local nickname for Tim Farron). George and I managed to get up there a couple of times leafleting before the official request to help there came, after that, apart from Polling day when our branch was running a Polling Station just over the border in Lancaster and Fleetwood, it became the focal point for our efforts. We even managed to persuade one of the excellent Skipton and Ripon Vote Leave team to go up there to deliver leaflets, even though he wasn’t a Conservative Party member! We fell short of winning the seat by just under 800 votes. If it had been targeted from day one, or if we had had a half decent national campaign, the wet lettuce would have been well and truly drowned.

In future campaigns the party needs to take much more notice of local activists, it also needs to do far more to include them in the process of making party policies. I don’t know of a single party member who would have been stupid enough to come up with a policy like the ‘dementia’ tax. How we do that is a topic for a future blog in this series.

Conservative Members Please Read

If what Iain Martin says here in his reaction life email is true, all Conservatives who feel angry and betrayed at the incompetence of the General Election Campaign have an opportunity to put pressure  on the cabinet through their MPs and constituency chairmen. Please email them and tell them that May’s position is untenable. Demand that the cabinet coalesce around a candidate who can be in place before the Brexit negotiations begin on the 19th of June. After that we can look at the longer term reforms the party needs. The ideas of the Bow Group here are a good place to start

If you agree please share with all your Conservative friends and colleagues.

Theresa May might not survive the next 72 hours

IAIN MARTIN

As I write this, in a car speeding north through the Swedish countryside to a conference to make a speech (about how well Brexit is going…) the phone is buzzing with texts and calls from London. All manner of shenanigans are ongoing. After much argument, the Prime Minister has announced the beginning of a cabinet that keeps the top five in place. There was an interlude during which the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary were trying to broker a deal with the Prime Minister and demanding a new style of government. In these talks Boris was the intermediary or if this carries on much longer will he become the assassin?

Some ministers are ready to say they will refuse to serve under May. Other members of the cabinet are actively engaged in trying to save Theresa May’s premiership on the basis that it is not immediately apparent who would take over if she steps down. Other senior members of the government have heard nothing – not a squeak! – from Number 10. There is astonishment at what is going on. “She’s f***ed,” says a key minister. “No, there is no vacancy and we cannot spend the next six months knocking lumps out of each other,” says another. “What a disaster,” says another.

What has introduced extra urgency and panic is the bizarre statement that the Prime Minister made on Friday afternoon after suffering a catastrophic election result in which she fell short of an overall majority. Her statement on Friday, widely expected to be contrite and heartfelt, was so detached and inappropriate that it had an electrifying effect.

There had been a mood in the upper reaches of the Tory tribe that if she had the numbers (and she does, just, with the DUP) then the best way forward was for her to continue at least in the short and medium term.

But the statement may have changed that, say MPs. It was unnerving, unsettling and unacceptable to a lot of senior Tories, to say nothing of the impact on the voters who will have had their concerns from the campaign about her confirmed. She is in shock and tired, but it was a performance that suggested she has failed to process what has happened and what it means. This is all very sad. May is a patriot and a decent person, but that might not be enough. We’re in country before party territory.

Here is one potential scenario explained to me by a furious minister. A senior member of the cabinet needs to be agreed on as the replacement, he says, with a whipping operation, starting immediately. That person can present themselves as the cabinet’s unanimous choice. The 1922 Committee can then canvas views and agree a way forward quickly on Monday morning. Might a bold or reckless backbencher want to stand too in such circumstances creating a contest? Is the country in the mood for a Tory leadership campaign? It is highly doubtful.

The skeleton “top five” cabinet is designed to head that off. But will it? With some organisation and a proper operation there could be a new PM in place on Monday, ahead of Brexit talks beginning on the 19th of June. This is the historic choice facing the cabinet tonight. Move, resign, support, or wait.

There will be plenty of time afterwards to deconstruct what went wrong for May. Safe to say, the 2017 election is easily the biggest screw-up by a Conservative party leadership since last year. Yet, even by the surreal standards of the summer of 2016, when David Cameron held a referendum on EU membership, lost it and had to resign, there is something special about what just happened to Theresa May, who is still (at time of writing) the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Just a month ago May was the Warrior Queen, an Elizabeth I figure in the mind of her biggest admirers. Icy, sure. But steadfast and ballsy with it. The voters had a less detailed impression. Just a vague sense that she had been the grown-up who turned up on the scene at the right moment last year during the crazy Tory leadership contest. Even though she was popular, it was – in the words of a prescient Tory sage early in the campaign – a popularity that could be measured as “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

So it turned out. Although no-one who suggested that May should go for an early election envisaged her presiding over the worst campaign since the Battle of Hastings with a manifesto that rained munitions down on Tory voters and contained no coherent message on the economy. What wasn’t in the script was a complete shitshow of a Tory campaign. It was a mind-bendingly awful effort. Inept, with no clear command and control structure until too late. It was by turns arrogant and confused. Stern and then shambolic. Creepy, then crap. Presidential and then pathetically pleading.

Still, it should not be forgotten that May had called an election, following advice for perfectly sensible reasons. It was not simply the benign state of the opinion polls. The sequencing of the Brexit talks demanded it. There are, or were until yesterday, two likely ways in which the talks can unfold and neither would have benefited from holding an election in 2019 or 2020 at a difficult moment. Knock it back to 2022, by going in 2017, that was the the theory.

Why? There would either be a satisfactory deal to leave in March 2019 with a two year transition period to smooth the uncoupling for both parties. The eurozone relies on London, Europe’s main capital market. The UK wants to trade.

Or, no deal would be done and Britain would have to make plans to step away without a settlement. A period of trying for status quo deals on subjects such as air travel and security would then unfold. Again, an election in the middle of this tricky adjustment or shortly afterwards would not be an ideal moment. That’s why she went early. But she made the most spectacular mess of it and the public figured her out.

Now? On Brexit? Who knows. There is a good team in place at DEXEU, the Department for Exiting the European Union, although without the comfort of a proper Commons majority their work becomes much more difficult and the starting position weaker in talks.

Anyway, more of that another time. First, the urgent question is an old question. How is the Queen’s government to be carried on? It simply can’t go on like this for more than 72 hours with the markets reopening on Monday morning and a terror campaign being waged against Britain.

Have a good weekend.

Iain Martin
Editor & Publisher,
Reaction.

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

This is the first in a series of blogs exploring the complete shambles of the current Conservative Party. No one has been a greater critic of Jeremy Corbyn than me. I regard him as a terrorist loving, Islamist apologising traitor. I hold Corbyn in contempt because of his refusal to condemn the abuses of the old Socialist States in Eastern Europe and his advocacy of the pernicious policy of nuclear disarmament. If people like him had been in charge 40 years ago we would have lost the Cold War and the Eastern bloc countries, and probably ourselves, would be enslaved by repressive Soviet style Communism. Despite that decent people voted for him. I don’t blame them. I blame us. I’ll explore why I think that was so in a later blog. But what I want to do now is map out what I think should be the first steps out of this unholy mess.

The first thing is that May has to go. She called an unnecessary General Election and lost her majority. She adopted a presidential style campaign based on strong leadership whilst simultaneously displaying the most appalling weakness and petulance. She has a tin ear for politics. In the most important General Election since WWII you do not kick your core vote in the teeth. This was precisely what May did with the ‘dementia’ tax and getting rid of the triple lock on pensions. In short, when you have the type of lead May did at the beginning of the campaign, to win, all you have to do is not make false steps or mistakes. It’s like carrying a precious vase across a slippery dance floor. Instead of walking across the floor carefully, May and her team decided to play ‘keepy uppy’ with it like a bunch of half-witted teenagers. It was no wonder the lead was smashed into a thousand pieces.

May’s USP was that she was uninspiring, but safe. That has gone and her credibility is non-existent. It is impossible now for her to command confidence in the country or inspire respect from EU negotiators. She has to go and be replaced by someone who can. The honourable thing for her to do would be to resign. But I doubt very much she will do this.

Conservative Party leadership elections are run by the 1922 Committee of back bench MPs. A contest can be triggered in two ways; if 15% of Conservative MPs write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee saying they no longer have confidence in the leader of the Conservative Party; or if he or she resigns. Candidates can be nominated by two MPs and there are then a series of ballots within the parliamentary party with the candidate with the lowest number of votes dropping out after each ballot until the final two left standing go forward to a vote of party members.

Even as a paid up and long suffering party member of the Conservative Party I can see it is absurd to go through this process at a time of national crisis. It maybe an exaggeration, but it is as daft as Churchill going through such a process in May 1940. Unfortunately, unlike in May 1940 there is no obvious candidate. Internal party democracy, even amongst MPs is a vastly over-rated concept. Instead the 1922 and whips office should take soundings over the member of the cabinet most likely to be able to unite the party, work with the DUP, restore the Party’s reputation for competence and negotiate Brexit. It’s a desperately difficult task and as an outsider looking in I don’t honestly know which member of the cabinet would be most suitable. It could be someone currently obscure. For instance, Baldwin was effectively last man standing when he became PM in 1923, but he navigated the country through the shoals of the interwar years as effectively as anyone could. The people who should know the best person for the job is the 1922 leadership and the whips office. They need to collaborate to achieve the necessary coronation.

One way to manage this would be to cooperate with the DUP. The Conservatives can’t form a government without the DUP. They should tell the Conservatives that Theresa May does not command their confidence, but if she was replaced with someone who did, they would be prepared to enter a coalition which would provide the majority government the country needs. Once a mutually acceptable leader of the coalition was appointed PM, it is inconceivable that they would not become Conservative leader, Churchill, for instance, became Conservative leader only after he was appointed head of the war time coalition. I do not like all the DUP stands for, but I do not doubt for one second their patriotism and loyalty to the UK. Now is the time for them to help rescue the country from the shambles the Conservative Party has created. Getting rid of Theresa May as PM is the first step in doing this. The sooner she is gone the better.

To conclude, by losing our majority through rank incompetence, we, the Conservative Party have let the country down in a shameful manner. We face the appalling prospect, in two or three years time, of a Marxist Prime Minister whose values are alien to everything Britain represents. If this calamity is to be avoided we have to make amends and we have to find a leader who can do it.