York Union Review: Choppy Waters: The Conservative Party Against All Odds

Dan Hodges (Daily Telegraph) and Stephen Bush (New Statesman), two of the best political journalists of the day, talked to the York Union about the future of the Conservative Party. Does it face choppy waters, or can it rest on its laurels now that the election is done?

Stephen Bush (L), of the New Statesman. Image: James Hostford

Stephen Bush (L), of the New Statesman. Dan Hodges (R) of the Telegraph Image: James Hostford

Thursday’s York Union event was billed as being about the “choppy waters” ahead for the current Tory government. Their tiny majority, their rancorous, scabrous backbenchers and the looming spectre of the referendum on Britain exiting the EU are, those interested in fair play feel, bound to bring them down. Surely they must at least tread carefully, lest they tear themselves apart? If all of those fail, Saint Jez will awaken the non-voters and vanquish them in 2020, right? Right?

A government in this age of new politics no longer need fear the risks of the old.

Well, no. Speakers Dan Hodges and Stephen Bush, of the Telegraph and New Statesman respectively, tore that assumption to pieces moments in. In tones varying from calm analysis to depression and exasperation, the paucity of any opposition was carefully laid out. A government in this age of new politics no longer need fear the risks of the old.

the entire event was defined not by the strengths of the Tories, but the complete weakness of their opponents

Jeremy Corbyn MP, Labour Party leader. Image: Wikimedia

Jeremy Corbyn MP, Labour Party leader. Image: Wikimedia

Labour is fractured, weakened and led by a man described by Hodges as “a political battery hen” for his previously narrow horizons (and electorally hamstrung by long associations with everyone from the IRA to Hamas). The SNP are content to chip away at the union, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has publicly stated that he will be forgotten, and the Greens have been decimated by Corbyn. Even UKIP has withered electorally. It was absolutely no mistake that the entire event was defined not by the strengths of the Tories, but the complete weakness of their opponents.

And all of this, as the speakers pointed out, against a Conservative government that just keeps making mistakes. The cuts haven’t saved the nation to the extent promised, growth isn’t roaring back, all of the levers pulled by Brown to help the economy are still pulled, and we’re ever more economically vulnerable to China. Hodges argued that for all that the messes of the Conservatives, their election victory in 2015 was no accident. Their long-term election plan hammered home a message that only they could be trusted with the UK, and their maturity showed in just how on-message they remained.

Dan Hodges at the York Union. Image: James Hostford

Dan Hodges at the York Union. Image: James Hostford

Their modernisation, begun before Cameron even found himself as Tory leader, has produced a party sat squarely in the centre ground, at least to look at. David Cameron has been free to chart his own path, ignoring siren calls from right or left, with the result that there is a distinct, small-c conservative brand with wider appeal. He may be loathed by the right wing of his party, but his election victory was the ultimate repudiation of their criticisms. Moreover, his legacy is secured with the lack of any fully right-of-centre candidate to run for leader when he steps down.

The only thing that seems likely to derail the Conservative project, it was agreed, was Britain exiting the European Union (Brexit). Both speakers said that it was the last place where the epic capability of the Tories for infighting might genuinely damage them electorally. A Brexit would force Cameron to resign (and Osborne too), and would push the “crazies” of the Conservatives into positions of far greater power than before. Against this, though, is the fact that the great debate seems to have yet to catch fire, the referendum is rushing up (June, it is hoped) and the status quo has a habit of prevailing.

Despite Dan Hodges’ position at the Telegraph (and his lengthy arguments with Corbynistas angry at his criticisms of the Labour leader) and Stephen Bush’s at the New Statesman (famed leftie paper that it is), there was nothing adversarial to the conversation. We got to watch two left-of-centre journalists (once Hodges had turned up after a train snafu), perfectly capable of professionalism, calmly laying out a timetable calamitous for anyone but the Tories and SNP.

the London Mayoral Election… defined by “so who’s going to get beaten by Sadiq

About the only point on which the panellists fully disagreed was the London Mayoral Election- Bush characterising the Tory campaign as defined by “so who’s going to get beaten by Sadiq [Khan, of Labour]?” Hodges maintained that he thought the Tory strategy of getting the outer suburbs to vote blue would lead to Zac Goldsmith winning, but added that he was worried that there’d be a racist element to the campaign (Khan, of British Pakistani heritage, would be London’s first Muslim mayor if he won, and has accused Goldsmith’s campaign of dog-whistle racism).

Bush’s total command of the numbers surrounding politics, clearly second nature, allowed him to reel off stat after stat with the confidence of one who knows he’s right. Every one illustrated how the Conservatives had cemented themselves into power:

24 Conservative seats with majorities of less than 3000. Scotland’s total loss to the SNP looking irreversible. The Tories and UKIP holding 51% of the popular vote in 2015. Increasing quantities of Labour local council seats being either lost or undermined, which as a national trend simply fragments opposition and allowed Conservative consolidation.

Should Jeremy Corbyn lose in 2020, only one in 7 of the last Labour leaders will have won a general election.

The cascade of losses for Labour under our current voting system of First Past the Post (the candidate with the most votes wins, no second preferences) could become a self-perpetuating spiral, as good candidates for government, leadership or publicity are culled by the electorate. After the aberration of victory between 1997& 2015, the party seems likely to fall back on comfortable opposition. Should Jeremy Corbyn lose in 2020, only one in 7 of the last Labour leaders will have won a general election.

if Labour stick to historical trends, they’ll be back in power by 2040

Stephen Bush’s most gloomy prediction was that if Labour stick to historical trends, they’ll be back in power by 2040 (though he allowed that in his eyes, 2030 was the first real chance). Hodges noted that Tory MPs were starting to realise that they had the chance to define the next political generation- though allowed that the next important election was 2025.

The speakers and chair at the York Union event. Image: James Hostford

The speakers and chair at the York Union event. Image: James Hostford

The Labour brand may prove more resilient than expected by the panel given recent polls, but with its leadership trusted by 16% of the populace in latest polling, damage is being done. Rows on Trident, on the Falklands, economics and Corbyn’s history are or will be used in attempts to shred Labour’s support come any serious electoral test.

The paucity of adequate successors to Corbyn, who will be pushing 70 by 2020, was yet another nail. Dan Jarvis has a great military backstory, but is yet to define himself, Keir Starmer’s prosecution background may not help him, and many others only have “reheated Milibandism” to offer. When asked if another MP such as Clive Lewis, without Corbyn’s troublesome history, might be better suited to face the electorate in 2020, Hodges exploded.

“Clive Lewis? We’re really talking about whether Clive Lewis could be leader of this country? That’s what this is, right?”

While some Tories do see the fragmenting of their opponents as bad, if only because a good opposition “keeps government honest”, they are unlikely to help Labour out. The extent of respect between adversaries seems to be some Tory MPs thinking that the Trade Union bill, likely to strip Labour of millions in funding from union donations, is not in the spirit of fair play.

The right, unless it indulges in a remarkably indulgent display of bloodletting, seems set for power for a decade at least

A final, crushing blow to the left is that, in the words of Bush, “the electorate views social democracy as a luxury good”, and traditionally votes Conservative in an economic downturn. The right, unless it indulges in a remarkably indulgent display of bloodletting, seems set for power for a decade at least. Short of sudden and unexpected catastrophe, David Cameron’s famous luck is set to hold, no matter where one looks.

Credit to the Union for their efforts, and for securing such excellent speakers.

 

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