50 years after Macmillan retired, what can Cameron learn from ‘SuperMac’?


Image used under an Open Government License

A slick Tory toff is Prime Minister. He struggles to maintain Britain’s status in the world, wrestles with disunity in his party, but seeks to win an election promoting a land of opportunity. I refer not to David Cameron, but to Harold Macmillan, who resigned as Prime Minister almost exactly 50 years ago.

So how does David Cameron compare to Harold Macmillan, and what can the current Prime Minister learn from ‘SuperMac’, the Conservative politician who served as Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963?

Macmillan and Cameron are cut from the same cloth in that they can both be seen as actor-politicians. Both were and are superb at the set-piece occasions. Indeed, Macmillan’s motto, borrowed from Gilbert and Sullivan was ‘Quite calm deliberation disentangles every knot.’ He even had that quote pinned on his Cabinet door. Underneath, Macmillan was anything but calm: he was regularly sick before the weekly jousts at Prime Minister’s Questions.

By contrast, Cameron is a natural leader in public and in private, conveying the air of someone born to rule. His Commons handling of the apologies over Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough were exemplary. He handles the big state occasions well. In short, he looks and sounds like a leader in a way that Ed Miliband doesn’t.

Macmillan and Cameron face similar problems in relation to foreign affairs. One of Macmillan’s greatest achievements as Prime Minster was to repair the ‘Special Relationship’ with America, which had been blighted following the disastrous Suez adventure in 1956. Macmillan used his charm with Dwight Eisenhower, the American President to negotiate the 1958 Nassau Agreement, which governs the British-American nuclear relationship to this day. Fast forwarding to 2013, Cameron must repair the Special Relationship, following his recent humiliation over the Commons defeat on British military action in Syria.

Both Macmillan and Cameron have had to reshape Britain’s relationship with Europe and have landed in trouble thanks to resistance from the French. Whereas Macmillan’s attempt to enter the European Economic Community in 1963 was met with a loud French raspberry from General de Gaulle, Cameron’s decision to promise an ‘In-Out’ referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union in January 2013 has again upset our Gallic partners.

The two Prime Ministers also share the problem of rebellious traditionalists in their parliamentary parties. For Macmillan, it was Empire loyalists who opposed his ‘Wind of Change’ decolonisation policies in Africa. For Cameron, it is a massive Tory right-wing, numbering more than a 100, who have opposed him on a whole range of issues from House of Lords reform to gay marriage.

But if there are similarities between the two Prime Ministers, Cameron is different in that unlike Macmillan, he is prepared to move with the times. Macmillan hailed from an Edwardian era where men especially didn’t show their feelings. His prudishness about all matters sexual was cruelly exposed during the Profumo Scandal in 1963. Already haunted by the fact that his wife Dorothy was having a long-term affair with Lord Boothby, Macmillan froze and handled the issue badly. Ultimately, it contributed to his downfall.

By contrast, Cameron is attempting to drag his party kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century by supporting gay marriage. Ever since Macmillan’s day, the British people have moved in an almost relentlessly liberal direction on social issues, and Cameron realises that he has to change his party to reflect that fact.

In terms of economic policy, there is a huge gulf between Macmillan and Cameron. Macmillan believed in the so-called ‘Middle Way’, a happy medium between socialism and capitalism. Macmillan’s economic views were shaped from his experiences in the First World War when officers and men from different social classes mixed more easily than in the past, and during his encounters with his impoverished Stockton constituents in the depression years of the 1930s.

Constantly fretting about the return of another depression ‘SuperMac’ wanted to go for economic growth, almost at any price. Many in his Cabinet disagreed. In 1958, Peter Thorneycroft, the Chancellor resigned along with his entire Treasury team in protest at Macmillan’s expansionist policies.

In truth, Macmillan’s support for the ‘Middle Way’ is much closer to New Labour’s adherence to its ‘Third Way’. Were Macmillan alive today, he would be thrown out of the Conservative Party for being a socialist. In his retirement, remember, Macmillan attacked the Thatcher government for ‘selling off the family silver’ through its privatisation policies. When Alistair Horne, Macmillan’s biographer admitted that he wasn’t a very good Tory, ‘SuperMac’ replied, ‘Nor was I dear boy.’ As Cameron embarks upon flogging Royal Mail to investors and selling publicly owned banking shares at a discount price, he should heed Macmillan’s warning.

Cameron could learn most from Macmillan in terms of his ability to win elections. Macmillan’s greatest triumph came in 1959 when he won a landslide majority of 100 against Hugh Gaitskell’s Labour Party. Labour had launched a highly professional campaign, making good use of television for the first time, but Macmillan trumped that by appealing to the British people’s innate love of the consumer society. Macmillan won big in 1959 because he realised that voters wanted a washing machine, a fridge and a television set. Cameron’s recent Conference speech where he extolled the virtues of a profit-making economy surely echoes Macmillan’s rallying cry of 1959.

Although Cameron is unlikely to repeat Macmillan’s 1959 feat of winning an outright majority at the next election, he remains the Conservative Party’s biggest asset because he, like ‘SuperMac’ realises that elections are fought and won on the centre ground.

Mark Stuart

Polling Observatory conference season update #4 – Conservatives

This is the twenty-ninth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

In this series of conference season specials, we review the state of support for each of the parties in turn. As we noted in Polling Observatory #27, there are dangers in the journalistic habit of focusing on poll leads, rather than shares, as well as interpreting poll leads in terms of the prevailing narrative of the Westminster Village. Focusing on the parties individually allows us to better understand the momentum behind them as the general election of 2015 fast approaches. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics or political events, so most shifts take place over a matter of months and years, not days. Looking back over the current Parliament – rather than just the latest poll figures – allows us to make a little more sense of where things stand.

We should be cautious, too, about extrapolating too much from past election cycles about the result in 2015 – as has become a popular pastime. Yes it is true that no government has ever increased its share of the vote after a first full parliamentary term since the war. Yes it is true that Labour’s poll share and Ed Miliband’s ratings are below what might be expected of a strong opposition. But precedents are there to be broken, and the 2010-2015 election cycle is arguably like no other in living memory. The main political parties vote shares have never been lower, a previously marginal party is polling consistently above 10% and the geography of the main parties’ voters is highly polarised, meaning that comparisons with how poll leads have translated into results in previous elections potentially are very misleading. The public are generally sick and tired of politics and politicians, so the ratings for leaders such as Miliband must be put in the context of a general disillusionment of citizens with the political class. And while the state of the economy matters to the election result, and there are signs of slight improvement (not to mention the warnings of a housing bubble due to the government’s policies) – other features of today’s economy are hardly likely to see voters rushing to reward the government, with the continued strain on living standards, a shift from full-time secure employment to part-time insecure jobs, and the growth of private debt to fuel the increase in consumer spending.


The summer saw a slight revival in the fortunes of the Conservatives, clawing back some ground lost during the UKIP surge of the spring of 2013. At their low ebb, immediately after UKIP’s local election breakthrough in May, we estimated the Conservatives at around 28% – they have picked up about 4 points since then.

Although support for the Conservatives has recovered slightly in the last few months, the longer term trend is much less encouraging, as our chart of support since the last general election makes clear. There are short term rises and falls, but the long term trend is clearly in a downward direction. Each slump in support hits new lows, and each rally peaks below the last. In particular, it is clear that the Conservatives lost a large chunk of support following the “omnishambles” budget of March 2012 that they have been unable to recover. Prior to this budget, we estimated Conservative support in the high 30’s. Since it was delivered, the Conservatives have struggled to reach 30%, and even after their latest rally they are still below 32%.  Over the past 18 months, Conservative support has fluctuated between 28% and 32%, well below the level of support they need to be the largest party in parliament at the next election, let alone win a majority. Where might hope of a political recovery lie for the Conservatives?

One of the areas where the Conservatives are widely agreed to be in a position of strength is their leader, David Cameron, who consistently out-polls his party and his fellow party leaders with the electorate. Much political science research has highlighted the importance of leaders in electoral success, but the impact on voters is very often over-stated – and is often factored into current support for the parties anyway. Further, while Ed Miliband’s poor ratings with the public signal a vulnerability that the Conservatives might seek to exploit, taking advantage of this is not always straightforward. With recent measures such as the proposed freeze on energy prizes, Miliband has staked out a brand of economic populism that may be difficult to counter – requiring the Conservatives to decide whether to paint him as either weak or dangerous, where the latter may perversely serve to improve his reputation for strong leadership with voters – on issues where the Labour leader also appears to have public opinion on his side. Meanwhile, the self-imposed constraints of austerity budgeting will make it difficult for the Conservatives to offer popular but expensive gifts to the electorate themselves, without undermining their argument that tough budget cuts are economically essential.

Unable to offer voters many gifts in the current economic climate, the Conservatives must therefore place their bets on a recovery before polling day. Economic optimism has been on the rise in recent times, which suggests the government is at least less likely to be punished for its austerity agenda than looked the case when the UK economy was flatlining. With Labour continuing to be blamed by a large section of the public for the state of the economy, the battle for economic credibility will be important as 2015 nears. Indeed, the economy seems to offer most scope to the government for selling a constructive story to voters about its achievements: a recovery will enable the party to claim vindication for its austerity policies and perhaps even offer a few goodies to the electorate. Without recovery, the Conservatives will struggle for a compelling message to win new support. It is not clear that a continued focus on right wing social issues like welfare and immigration can deliver many gains. The electorate has long known where the party stands on these issues, and growing discontent from their Liberal Democrat coalition partners will make further right wing reform in these areas difficult to accomplish, and if the Conservatives campaign on these issues without being able to act on them they risk increasing the appeal of UKIP to frustrated voters. The Conservatives will be looking to set out a clear agenda for a second term, starting with this year’s conference, but the nature of this agenda and their chances of being in government to implement it are now very much in the gift of economic forces beyond their control.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Why party conferences still matter


The annual Party Conference season is now well and truly under way. It’s a time when each political party’s enthusiasts – what I call the badge wearers – spend a week debating obscure composites, resolutions and amendments. Little wonder then that the general public generally switches channels to see if there is a decent repeat available on Dave.

To their detractors like Tony Benn, party conferences have become like American political conventions in which ‘we just let off balloons, sing pop songs, greet showbiz celebrities and, if you’re lucky, have the occasional debate.’

So, do party conferences still matter?

The answer partly depends on whether a party is in Opposition or in Government. Opposition parties and their leaders are generally ignored by the media for the rest of the year, so the party conference becomes a vital occasion for Leaders of the Opposition to explain to the voters what they stand for. But if the party is in Government, conference defeats can be more easily discounted, as in 2003 when Tony Blair simply brushed off a conference defeat on foundations hospitals, and pressed on with the enabling legislation regardless.

In reality, the power of the annual conference largely depends on which political party we are discussing. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, currently gathered in Glasgow, genuine democracy prevails. As Nick Clegg admitted this week, ‘one of the joys’ of the Liberal Democrats is that their party conference truly decides matters of policy. Party delegates will largely determine the content of the next Liberal Democrat manifesto; at least in terms of policy, if not priorities. It matters, then, that Clegg narrowly won Monday’s debate on economic policy, not least to avoid the appearance of disunity.

If we go far back into its early twentieth century roots, the Labour conference was the sovereign body of the party. Labour MPs were seen as delegates whose role was to implement Labour party policy in the House of Commons. In theory, that part of the Labour rulebook – Clause 5 – still remains in place (‘The work of the party shall be under the direction and control of the party conference’)  But in practice, as the parliamentary Labour party grew in size, so its MPs started to flex their muscles. Initially, Conference defeats were rare, as the union block vote rallied behind the leadership. Indeed, between 1949 and 1960, the Labour leadership only suffered one defeat. It was only in the era of Hugh Gaitskell that the Labour leadership suffered a couple of serious reverses on the issues of Clause IV and nuclear disarmament. Since the Gaitskell era, defeats have simply been ignored.

Despite suffering these defeats, successive Labour leaders since Gaitskell have understood the true value of party conference speeches: they give Leaders of the Opposition a chance to be seen to be facing down critics in their own party. Famously, Neil Kinnock’s speech against the Militant Tendency in Bournemouth in 1985 demonstrated to the wider electorate that Labour was serious about modernization. His successor, John Smith, risked the leadership of his Party in 1993 in order to secure One Member, One Vote for the same reason. Twenty years later, Ed Miliband faces a similar challenge to that presented by Smith: he must show the public that he is serious about reforming Labour’s historic link with the unions.

In theory at least, the Conservative party conference is one in which the leadership is all powerful. But in practice, Tory conferences have shown a marked tendency to spark into life. Back in1978 when the Tories gathered in Brighton, a vigorous debate ensued in which delegates called for the lifting of economic sanctions against Ian Smith, the white supremacist ruler in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Replying to the debate, Tory frontbench John Davies gave a rambling speech, during which he was heckled loudly from the Conference floor. Sadly, the splitting headache he suffered from on that occasion was not the result of the heated debate, but a malignant brain tumour, from which he died a few months later. But no senior Tory frontbench still alive can forget the mauling Davies received from delegates on that occasion.

For decades following the abolition of the death penalty in 1965, the annual capital punishment debates at the Tory Party Conference became awkward events requiring careful handling by the conference platform. In his memoirs, William Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher’s first Home Secretary, acknowledged that his over-emotional response to the capital punishment debate at the 1981 Conference damaged his standing in his party. Later on in the decade, Douglas Hurd, a consistent opponent of capital punishment, recalled having to contend with emotive speeches from retired police sergeants who were capable of stirring the Conference delegates into a froth. Mrs. Thatcher felt she had to attend these law and order debates, even if she took a different view from her Home Secretary. As speaker after speaker called for the restoration of the death penalty, she would clap her hands under the platform table, out of sight of the delegates.

Unluckily, it was Douglas Hurd, by this stage Foreign Secretary, who had to cope with yet another lively Conference debate in 1992, this time over Europe. On that occasion, the Party hierarchy allowed Norman Tebbit to make a poisonous speech against the Prime Minister, John Major. As Hurd prepared his reply to the debate, Major peppered him with ‘Give ‘em hell’ notes. Hurd was able to face down his conference critics, but only just.

The very fact that the Tory leadership has to respond to the occasional bout of sustained criticism from their members is surely good for our democratic system. Granted, the party leadership normally gets its way. But what the public don’t see are the fraught negotiations behind-the-scenes between delegates and the leadership over the wording of those aforementioned composites, resolutions and amendments. It’s what Richard Kelly in his seminal 1989 work on Conservative Party Conferences called The Hidden System.

Hardly the sort of political intrigue to persuade the public to miss a repeat of Would I Lie to You? on Dave, but important nonetheless.

Mark Stuart

David Cameron perpetuates factually inaccurate link between immigration and welfare dependency in pre-G8 speech

Image by Ben Fisher/GAVI Alliance

Image by Ben Fisher/GAVI Alliance

On 10th June, David Cameron gave a speech to DP World at London Gateway in Essex. The speech was wide-ranging, covering globalisation, Britain’s place in the world and, inevitably, immigration. In this speech, he made claims that have become ‘common knowledge’ in the UK. He said:

“Those who are starry-eyed about the benefits of globalisation refuse to see the link between uncontrolled immigration and mass welfare dependency. But when you had a welfare system that effectively allowed large numbers of British people to choose not to work, and an immigration system that encouraged people from across the world to come here to work, the results were predictable.

“A large proportion of jobs went to foreign-born workers so to get people back to work we needed to get a grip. We have capped non-EU economic migration. We’ve shut down the bogus colleges that were a front for illegal immigration. And today, net immigration is down by more than a third. The number of immigrants coming to the UK is lower than it has been for over a decade.”

There are many ‘truth claims’ that underlie this statement and that deserve a fact-based rebuttal. Broken down, these claims are:

1.    Britain had ‘uncontrolled immigration’.
2.    Immigration leads to ‘mass welfare dependency’.
3.    Immigrants have taken British jobs from British workers.
4.    Capping economic migration will protect British jobs for British workers.
5.    Lower net migration is an accurate measure.

These are huge claims with strong policy implications. But how do they stand up against the facts? Let’s break each of these down.

1. Britain had uncontrolled immigration

The UK has never had uncontrolled immigration. In recent years, the closest this has come to occurring is through EU freedom of movement, but even this is not truly uncontrolled, and non-EEA migration is very tightly regulated. Freedom of movement means EU citizens and family members can move and reside in another member country for up to three months. For those wishing to stay longer than three months, they must be (self-)employed, have independent means or be a student/in vocational training. EU citizens cannot simply enter Britain and sign onto the benefit system, contrary to widespread myths. With all of these requirements, EU freedom of movement is not the same as ‘uncontrolled immigration’.

2. Immigration leads to mass welfare dependency

Underlying this statement is the truth claim that the UK has mass welfare dependency. It is a common claim right now that the UK has a ballooning welfare bill caused by too many people living off of benefits. Several studies have shown conclusively that the largest increase in the welfare bill is comprised of payments to pensioners. If pensioners are removed from the figures, government spending on other benefits has remained basically flat for the last 25 years. Furthermore, of the non-pensioner benefits, the majority are paid to people working in jobs that don’t pay a living wage. Only 10-13%  of people are unemployed and receiving benefits. Many of these are un-/low-skilled workers who face cyclical unemployment. This evidence refutes the claim that the UK has a welfare dependency problem.

Furthermore, several studies have shown that immigrants are less likely than Britons to draw benefits even when they are in the same socioeconomic circumstances and qualify to draw benefits.

3. Immigrants have taken British jobs

Linked to point 2 is the accusation that immigrants have caused ‘native’ unemployment by taking away British jobs. There are many nuances to be disproved in this claim. In fact, many immigrants are self-employed, which means that their jobs are self-created and would not have existed if they were not present. There is some evidence that un-/low-skilled migration affects the lowest skilled British workers slightly, but there is no evidence overall that immigrants take away British jobs.

Immigrants are also net contributors, which means that they put more into the economy than they take out.

4. Capping economic migration will protect British jobs for British workers

In fact, capping migration could have disastrous effects on the British economy. Nearly a third of health workers are foreign born. British R&D and universities are dependent on highly skilled foreign workers. Decreases in foreign student numbers have wider impact on local economies where those students would have spent money. There is no conclusive evidence of widespread abuse of the student visa system. Caps therefore mean less money coming into the UK economy.

5. Lower net migration is an accurate measure

Net migration = people coming into the country – people leaving the country

It includes both Britons and foreigners. Because of this, the number of people entering the country could decrease, but net migration could remain steady or even increase because of a decrease in the number of people leaving the country. This is exactly what happened when the recession hit in 2008: Britons who had been emigrating to countries like Australia in their droves stopped leaving the country, so even though the number of immigrants arriving decreased, net migration did not.

Unlike many other developed countries, students are included in UK net migration figures, despite the temporary nature of their stay. Also included: EU citizens; spouses, children and dependent relatives; and refugees. Around half of immigrants entering the UK each year are Britons and EU citizens. Once spouses, dependents, British and EU citizens are excluded, relatively few people are left whose entry government policy can bar; and most of these are highly skilled or working in occupations with skills shortages.

All of this should at least make you question the accuracy of claims like those put forward by David Cameron. There is no evidence of uncontrolled immigration, of benefit tourism, of a welfare dependency culture, of lower unemployment from stopping immigration. When national leaders say otherwise, they perpetuate the myths.

Want more evidence? Try Full Fact, Channel 4’s FactCheck, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, and Oxford’s Migration Observatory.

Helen Williams

Cambo Chained

cover_2013We’ve been producing end-of session reports on the behaviour of government MPs at Westminster for almost a decade. Last year’s was a record-breaker: Coalition MPs rebelling more often than MPs in any other session since 1945. This morning we’ve launched the report on the 2012-13 session. It tells a more nuanced story, but with plenty to concern the party whips:

1.    A rebellion in 27% of divisions, down from the 44% in the last session. But still relatively high for the post-war period.

2.    Conservative MPs have broken ranks in 19% of divisions (down from 28% in the 2010-12 session), Lib Dem MPs have done so in 15% (down from 24% in the 2010-12 session). So the decline in rebelliousness has been equal (down nine points for the Conservatives and nine for the Lib Dems) for both parts of the Coalition. The figure for the Conservatives alone is still higher than for all but seven sessions of Conservative government during the post-war era.

3.    And the Parliament still remains on course to be the most rebellious since 1945. Even if the rate of rebellion drops again by half – down to a rate of around 13% – in the remaining two sessions, we would expect the overall total for the Parliament to be 29%, still (just) enough to make it the most rebellious in the post-war era.

4.    Why’s it down? Several reasons, but a key one was the withdrawal – under fire – of House of Lords reform. This had the effect of removing considerable combustible material from the Government’s legislative programme. Had (somehow) that Bill gone ahead, past Second Reading, we would be reporting a considerably higher number of rebellions.

5.    A total of 185 Coalition MPs have voted against their whip so far during the Parliament. Most (148) of these are Conservatives; the most rebellious nine Coalition rebels are Conservatives, headed by Philip Hollobone, who was also the most rebellious in the last session. He has now voted against his whip 129 times since the election in 2010.

6.    Of these 185 MPs, 144 rebelled during the 2012-13 session, and there was a very strong (0.79) relationship between behaviour in the two sessions of the Parliament.

7.    Of the 148 Conservative rebels, 90 (or six in ten) are from the 2010 intake, and of Conservative members of the 2010 intake who have been on the backbenches throughout the Parliament some 85% have now rebelled.

8.    And on the Lib Dem side of the Coalition once you exclude those Lib Dem MPs who are or were at some point members of the payroll vote, either as ministers or parliamentary private secretaries, and thus expected to remain loyal to the government, there is now not a single Lib Dem MP who has been on the backbenches throughout the Parliament and who has remained loyal to the party whip.

9.    The government still win most votes easily – the median majority in whipped votes this sesson was 71. But close run things are becoming slightly more common (in its first 24 months in power the government’s majority only fell below 50 on 22 occasions; in the last twelve months it has fallen below 50 on 17 occasions).

10.    And, crucially, David Cameron has now joined the list of Prime Ministers defeated in the House of Commons as a result of their own MPs rebelling, a line which dates back unbroken to Edward Heath.

Download the full report.

Philip Cowley

How Labour saw Cameron in 2010: his face reddens and his hands shake when he is caught on the back foot

Image by World Economic Forum

Image by World Economic Forum

When doing qualitative research, people are sometimes willing to talk to you or to show you material but only on a background basis; that is, that it can inform what you write, but you cannot quote from it.  Amongst the many documents that Dennis Kavanagh and I were shown when writing our book on the 2010 general election, was a document written by the Number 10 staffer, Theo Bertram (who would play Nick Clegg in Labour’s private debate rehearsals) and intended as an introductory note for Michael Sheehan, who Labour had brought in from the US to help with their preparations.  It outlined the strengths and weaknesses – as Labour perceived them – of the three party leaders when dealing with interviews and prime ministers’ questions.  When the book came out, we were not allowed to quote directly from it, but today – on the third anniversary of the first leader’s debate, and with Theo Bertram’s permission – here is how Labour then saw David Cameron:

–   “he can gear change well between moods – he is well able to pitch his posture and tone to suit the subject

–   he never loses awareness of the camera

–   he has a catalogue of personal stories and he is at his best when he is talking about his family

–   he occasionally feels stagey – for example, though he feigns exasperation well, it can feel manufactured when he feigns anger

–   his lines are well written and he sticks to them

–   he never steers too far away from his top lines – but if pinned on detail he can quickly appear evasive as he attempts to return to his top lines

–   when he is pinned on an issue or forced off his top lines to respond off the cuff, he can sometimes appear tetchy, or even cross

–   he has some clear ‘tells’: his face reddens and his hands shake when he is caught on the back foot

–   when he is caught in a panicked moment his response is to attack but at these times he is prone to scoff or even snort derision, especially in confrontation with Gordon

–   occasionally his voice has a clipped sharpness – partly from his accent but also from a perceptible sense of self-importance and impatience with others”.

Three years on may seem like a different world politically (three years ago today, we were on the eve of Cleggmania) but these ten points still feel like a remarkably accurate summary of the Prime Minister’s debating weaknesses – and strengths.

Philip Cowley


Most “eurosceptic” Conservatives care more about the next elections than the EU

Image by Ben Fisher/GAVI Alliance

Image by Ben Fisher/GAVI Alliance

Conservatives clearly care an awful lot – some would say too much – about Europe. But most of them care even more about winning elections. Naturally the Tory EUphoria occasioned by David Cameron’s referendum pledge owes something to his appearing to promise better-off-outters a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put their case directly to the British people. But to the bulk of Conservatives, who are sceptical but not utterly obsessed with the issue, what mattered more was the possibility that the speech might see them safely through to the next election – and might even help them win it.

Those Tories who want to leave the EU will of course worry that Cameron is playing them for fools: many observers, after all, predict that, like Labour’s Harold Wilson back in 1974, he will call a referendum after an essentially cosmetic renegotiation that will nonetheless persuade most voters that he’s done enough to make the UK’s continued membership worthwhile. And Cameron, as he’s shown us very recently, has got form, returning from several summits in Brussels claiming more or less convincingly to have got what he wanted. Ultimately, though, hard-line sceptics know they may never get the chance to ask the in-out question again, so it’s a risk they know they’re just going to have to run.

Some sceptics, of course, have begun to ask, and will continue to ask, awkward questions. Precisely which powers does Cameron want to repatriate? Will William Hague’s supposedly ‘comprehensive audit’ turn out to be a British lion or a rather more mundane mouse? Will he garner any support from fellow heads of government, some of whom may be making encouraging noises now but may be booted out by their own electorates a few months or years hence? Will it take a Treaty change or can Cameron get a deal some other way? How far does any reform package have to go before it’s deemed sufficiently different from the status quo to merit putting it to the voters? Will he really be willing to recommend a ‘no’ vote if he can’t get what he wants? When exactly will the referendum be held? How will the question be worded? Simply yes or no to a particular package or, if no, then we leave? Will all members of the government be expected to toe the party line during the referendum campaign or will they be allowed to break ranks without losing their jobs?

For all that, most of them will go for it. And they will be joined by those who are less bothered about Brussels than they are about holding on to their seats and possibly even pulling off a miracle at the next election. The referendum will, they hope, stop UKIP in its tracks – hopes which rose (if only for a while) on the results of the first batch of post-speech opinion polls and a rather crestfallen Nigel Farage shifting his focus to Labour. They also believe that Ed Miliband’s decision not – or at least not at the moment – to match Cameron’s in-out offer will make things awkward for him at the next election. Likewise Nick Clegg – and remember that around half of the forty seats apparently targeted by the Tories in 2015 will be Lib Dem rather than Labour seats. More importantly for some, Cameron’s speech may – just may – see Europe returned to the backburner, leaving the government free to focus on the things that will most matter to winning that election, namely getting the economy right, hitting the government’s targets on immigration, and making sure that deficit reduction doesn’t impact too seriously on cherished public services, most obviously the NHS.

All this might be a little bit optimistic. Most obviously, when it comes to Europe itself, there are so many things that are out of Cameron’s – indeed, anyone’s – control. Elections in other countries. A catastrophic break-up of the single currency. And a refusal to allow the UK to have its cake and eat it on the part of other governments for whom Cameron’s demands may render what I like to think of as the Gloria Gaynor option increasingly attractive.

Domestically, things are also finely-balanced. Anyone expecting the uptick in Tory opinion poll ratings to turn into a step-change is likely to be disappointed: reality – particularly if the country returns to recession – is bound to bite once again, and bite hard. Defeat at Eastleigh, especially if UKIP doesn’t trail in too badly in fourth place, will also cause Cameron problems. As for Labour, Miliband may well, like Wilson, find himself ‘wading through shit’ for a while on the issue, but voters may well begin to discount his apparent refusal to give them a say, particularly as the economy once again overtakes Europe as the biggest issue facing the country. And when it comes to the Lib Dems, Cameron may well turn out to have been too clever by half. True, it’s unlikely that they’ll cite the referendum as the co-respondent in the divorce proceedings they’re almost bound to initiate as the election draws closer. But – unless it really is the case that all they care about is clinging onto office irrespective of everything they once stood for – it is hard to imagine that the issue will play no part whatsoever in any choice they may eventually have to make between another coalition with the Conservatives and what might by that time seem like fresh start with Labour.

As for the Tories, Europe might be a big issue – perhaps even the biggest issue. But it’s not the only issue. Team Cameron was shocked by how many right-wingers (and, yes, I know that hard-line Euroscepticism doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with traditional views on social policy) simply banked their ‘victory’ on the referendum and moved swiftly onto gay marriage, which will no doubt continue to down like the proverbial cup of cold sick back in the constituencies until the legislation is finally passed. And, however nonsensical it may be, especially given the fact that, as Michael Ashcroft continually reminds them, Cameron outpolls his Party, some will still actively hanker after Boris. At the moment, the idea that anyone would seek to replace the Prime Minister before the next election seems fanciful. But what if Labour, as it probably will, begins to pull clear again in the polls? And what if, despite Cameron’s speech, UKIP beats the Tories into third place in the European parliament elections?

There is, of course, an awful lot of ‘what if’ in all this – perhaps inevitably. On this issue at least, I’m not one of those who believes (to borrow from Shakespeare) that they ‘can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not.’ But any Conservative who believes that Cameron has suddenly conjured up a win-win situation from everything that’s been thrown at him – mainly by his own side – in the last eighteen months should be careful not to celebrate too soon.

EuroscepticismThis post is part of a collaboration between British Politics and PolicyEUROPP and Ballots & Bullets, which aims to examine the nature of euroscepticism in the UK and abroad from a wide range of perspectives. Read more posts from this series.

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of LondonHe is the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron. His latest book is The Conservatives since 1945: the Drivers of Party Change.

The Price of Constitutional Revenge

Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie outline possible consequences of the Liberal Democrats voting down the proposed new Parliamentary constituencies

On Monday, 6 August, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, announced that because the Prime Minister could not deliver Conservative party backbench support for the coalition’s House of Lords Reform Bill, it was being withdrawn. Mr Clegg interpreted this as the Conservative party failing to deliver on part of its coalition agreement – a point also made by other Liberal Democrat spokespersons (rather unsuccessfully in some cases, as with Jeremy Browne on the next day’s Today programme). As a consequence he would instruct his party to vote against the main Conservative component in the package of constitutional changes in that agreement – the Boundary Commissions’ recommendations for 600 new Parliamentary constituencies involving a reduction in the number of MPs, much greater electoral equality and more frequent (every five years) redistributions.

Two days later, David Cameron indicated his determination to proceed with the review arguing – according to The Independent, 8 August 2012 – that every MP should agree that ‘the House of Commons ought to be smaller, ought to be less expensive and we ought to have seats that are exactly the same size’. (No convincing evidence was ever cited in the long Parliamentary debates over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, 2011, to sustain his first two oughts, and of course the legislation does not require exact equality, only that the range of constituency electorates should be no more than 10 per cent of the average – i.e. 7643 voters.)

The Boundary Commissions are currently just over half-way through their review implementing the new rules for redistribution. They have published their initial proposals and undertaken the first stage of the public consultation process. Revised recommendations are expected in October, and after a further period of consultation they are expected to complete their work in mid-2013. Their final recommendations have to be delivered by October 2013 and presented to both Houses for approval. When they are tabled in the House of Commons, Mr Clegg (who was responsible for the Act which created the new situation, though it was steered through by a Conservative Minister, Mark Harper) would have been expected to present the Orders. There is, of course, a precedent for a Cabinet Minister presenting such an Order, only for his whips to ensure it was defeated – James Callaghan in 1969 – although that did not have the potential to bring down a government. Mr Clegg may well pass the task to another, but if he does instruct his MPs, including all Liberal Democrat Ministers, to vote against and assist Labour in defeating the Orders this could lead to the coalition’s demise!

What would happen then is uncertain. Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, 2011 (another element of the coalition constitutional package) a general election can only be held before the scheduled date of 7 May, 2015, if either:

  1. The House of Commons passes a motion to the effect that ‘There shall be an early Parliamentary general election’, with the number voting for that motion being at least two-thirds of the number of seats in the House (including current vacancies); or
  2. The House of Commons passes a motion ‘That this House has no confidence in her Majesty’s Government’ and a further motion ‘That this House has confidence in her Majesty’s Government’ is not then passed (presumably on another potential government, with a different leader, than that in which no confidence was recently expressed) within fifteen days of the first motion.

If the government falls as a consequence of the vote on the new 600 constituencies, therefore, an immediate general election may follow if the House of Commons so decides. It would be fought in the existing 650 seats.

Of course, if Labour and the Liberal Democrat MPs all voted against the Order, it would not necessarily fail. Together they could muster 312 votes (assuming a Labour win in Corby) to the Conservatives 304. Everything would then depend on the 25 other MPs who normally attend and vote (i.e. excluding Sinn Féin’s five plus the Speaker and three Deputies): nine Scottish and Welsh nationalists, eight from the DUP, three from the SDLP, three from single-member parties (Alliance, Green, Respect) and the two independents. It would not be impossible for the Conservatives to use ‘sweeteners’ to manufacture a majority of 321 without their coalition partners, if they were determined to get the new constituencies in place for the 2015 election.

And David Cameron has indicated that they will be determined. The legislation was introduced because the Conservatives believe – rightly – that they have been substantially disadvantaged by the operation of the electoral system for two decades. They also believe – wrongly – that the major reason for this is the current inequality in constituency electorates, which substantially favours Labour. That component of the pro-Labour bias is much less than they sometimes claim. Nevertheless, analysis of the Boundary Commissions’ initial recommendations clearly indicates should be the Conservatives will be the major beneficiaries of the first implementation of the new system for redistributions and the reduced number of MPs. In 2010, they gained a lead over Labour of 48 seats. If that election had been fought in the Commissions’ proposed new seats, best estimates suggest that their lead over Labour would have been extended to 68 seats (in a House of only 600 MPs compared to the current 650). With the Liberal Democrats estimated to win only 46 seats (they got 57 in 2010), the Conservatives would have been only two seats short of an overall majority (and with Sinn Féin MPs not voting would in effect have a very small one).

Of course, the Commissions will probably change their recommendations (though not extensively, given the constraints they are working under) after they have considered the representations received: these have included strenuous efforts by each of the parties to alter the proposed boundaries in their electoral favour in many areas, by suggesting alternative configurations that better meet the deployed criteria (community ties, continuity of representation, special geographical considerations etc.) other than electoral equality. Indeed, if all of the Conservatives’ counter-proposals were implemented (which is very unlikely, despite their very professional, painstaking approach to the task) they might expect to have won a further 13 seats than in those constituencies proposed by the Commissions: with Labour losing twelve the gap between the two parties would be 93 seats rather than 68, and the Conservatives would have had a workable majority. (Of course, if the other parties’ counter-proposals were all implemented the situation would not be so rosy: Labour’s would close the gap to only 47 seats, for example.)

The implication is that between now and October 2013 the Conservatives will do much to try and win back Liberal Democrat support for the new constituencies – based on arguments made by Mr Clegg in Parliament in 2011 that the rules used to produce them are much fairer than those previously deployed. Whether that involves a much more limited reform of the House of Lords, along the lines being vigorously promoted by David Steel (an ex-leader of Mr Clegg’s party), or other ‘concessions’ in a renewed coalition agreement remains to be seen. (The Conservatives may also have to convince some of their own MPs that the exercise is worth it. Many were surprised by the extensive fracturing of the constituency maps in the Commissions’ initial proposals – one termed them ‘somewhat more disruptive than we had in mind’ – and although most indicated their support for greater equality, fewer MPs, and more frequent redistributions in their representations to the Commissions, in some cases this was clearly grudging support as they faced the possibility of having to seek re-election from a very different seat to that currently represented.)

At this stage, however unlikely it might be that Mr Clegg carries out his threat (assuming he is still leading the party in a year’s time), it is illuminating to rehearse briefly several other scenarios that might play out.

The first – although very unlikely, because of the loss of face it would involve and the potential use of Parliamentary time – is that the 2011 Act is repealed in autumn 2012. The Boundary Commissions will then terminate the present exercise and the previous legislation will come back into play. This requires them to undertake a review every 8-12 years. The last one was completed in 2007 (2004 in Scotland) and in order to meet that timetable they (especially the English Commission) may deem it necessary to start a review in 2013. It would not report until after the 2015 general election, however, which would have to be fought in the current 650 constituencies with some at least of the pro-Labour biases accentuated in seats that were created using 2000-2001 electoral data. New constituencies would only be in place in time for the 2020 election – but with at least the same number of MPs as now, and perhaps a few more.

One of a second pair of scenarios would eventuate if the Boundary Commissions complete their current task in 2013, but their recommendations are then voted down by Parliament. In that case too, the 2015 election would be held in the current 650 constituencies. Much will then depend on who wins that election. If the Conservatives do, or they are the largest party in a new coalition government, they will presumably retain the current legislation (perhaps with some amendments: they were pressured to retain Public Hearings and may try again to abolish them – like the previous Local Inquiries, they continue to be dominated by the political parties). The Boundary Commissions will, under the 2011 Act, start their next review in 2015-2016, to produce a House of 600 members by October 2018, for use at the 2020 election. The 600 constituencies currently being created would probably form the basis for that exercise, although significant changes in some areas may be needed because of population movements, re-warding by local government boundary commissions, and the impact of Individual Electoral Registration, assuming that legislation passes.

If Labour forms a government in 2015, however, or is the largest party in a coalition, it may well repeal the 2011 legislation, which it vigorously opposed, especially in the long and tedious House of Lords Second Reading debates. The Boundary Commissions would then have to begin a new review based on the rules set out in the Boundary Commissions Act, 1986 (before it was amended by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, 2011). Under those conditions, it is unlikely that that review would be completed in time for new constituencies to be in place for the 2020 general election (particularly in England: it may be completed and its recommendations implemented in the other three countries). In that case an election would be held 2020 in the 650 constituencies based on data some twenty years old, with very substantial electoral inequality (although, given the growing re-population of urban England recently reported, this may not be as much to Labour’s advantage – except in Scotland and Wales – as it has been previously). The new constituencies, based on 2015 electoral data, would then be ten years old when first used in 2025 – exactly the situation the Conservatives sought to avoid with the 2011 legislation.

Half-way through the two decades from 2000, there are already substantial variations in constituency electorates within each country. In December 2011, for example, the average English constituency contained 72,522 voters but three (including the two Wirral seats) had electorates below 60,000 and a further 47 had 60,000-65,000: at the other end of the scale, three (Manchester Central, East Ham and the Isle of Wight) had electorates in excess of 90,000, and another 45 had 85,000-90,000. By 2020, the variation would be much greater. Meanwhile, in over-represented Wales the current average electorate is just 57,465, and four of the 40 constituencies have fewer than 50,000 voters.

Finally, if the Commissions’ recommendations for 600 new constituencies are accepted by Parliament in 2013 and used for the 2015 general election, what happens next remains a matter of conjecture. If Labour wins then it will probably seek to amend the Act, creating new rules (probably with a wider range of acceptable electorate sizes that the 5 per cent maximum variation from the average currently enacted and different guidelines for the conduct of public consultation, and perhaps also with less frequent redistributions than every five years)? If so, the outcome could well be another new set of constituencies considerably different from those used for the 2015 election. If the Conservatives win, they are more likely to retain the current rules – though some at least of their MPs are uneasy about them. At one stage before the 2010 election there was talk of reducing the size of the House of Commons in two tranches – to 585 MPs in 2015 and then 500 in 2020 (a goal supported by some Liberal Democrat MPs). After the problems with the current redistribution that is probably now off their agenda!




If a week is a long time in politics, a year is a geological era and much may happen to change Mr Clegg’s stance – if not that of his Conservative partners – before the Orders based on the Boundary Commissions’ current reviews are placed before Parliament and voted on. But if, for some reason, those new constituencies are not in place in time for the 2015 general election, the result will not only be a larger House of Commons than that legislated for in the coalition government’s early months, but also a very unsatisfactory, ancient, set of unequal constituencies (both across and within each of the UK’s four countries) and all the biases this can introduce to the electoral system’s operation. As seemed possible at times in 2010, Labour could win a majority even though it wasn’t the largest party!


Professors Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie

‘More what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules': Jeremy Hunt and the Ministerial Code

Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s Culture Secretary, remains under fire for his handling of his ‘quasi-judicial’ role in deciding whether News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s media company, could take full ownership of the broadcaster BSkyB. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, insists that the Leveson inquiry is the appropriate venue to determine the facts of the case, and no decision will be taken on Hunt’s position until after he appears later this month. Until then, Hunt retains the confidence of the PM.

However, some facts of the case have already been revealed, including several emails of Frederic Michel, head of public affairs at News Corp. Of particular importance was his email of 27 June 2011, stating ‘JH is now starting to look into phone-hacking/practices more thoroughly and has asked me to advise him privately in the coming weeks and guide his and No.10’s positioning.’  The government claims that the reference to ‘JH’ meant Hunt’s office in general rather than the Minister, and specifically Adam Smith, Hunt’s special advisor.

One key element of this case has been the debate about whether Hunt has breached the Ministerial Code. The Labour Party have claimed that the emails in general, and particularly the one cited above, show that Hunt did not follow the ministerial code and therefore should be removed from office. But has Hunt breached the Code?

The simple, if rather unsatisfactory, answer is: we don’t know, and we can’t know.  Although we can all read the Ministerial Code, in practice it is ‘more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules’.  As the Code makes clear, the PM ‘is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards.’  The question of whether Hunt breached the Code is therefore a matter of the PM’s interpretation. If the PM chooses, he can refer the issue to the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, but he remains free to decide on the consequences of any investigation.

Notwithstanding the fact that Cameron has fully backed Hunt, and stated in Parliament that there was no evidence of Hunt breaching the Code (at least as of 30 April), has Hunt been accused of anything that could be interpreted as being against the Code? Here again the issue is blurry. Ed Miliband made three specific allegations (see the second video here) about sections of the Code that he thought had been breached. These were sections:

1.2c “It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”

1.1 “Ministers of the Crown are expected to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety.”

9.1 “When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament.”

A breach of 1.1 would only occur if there is clear evidence of some impropriety, but it is precisely that issue which remains open to question. 9.1 is also open to question, since it depends on interpretations of what constitutes ‘the most important announcements of Government policy’.  Possibly more worrying for Hunt is the claim that section 1.2c has been breached.  Ed Miliband said:

“In the House on 3 March the Culture Secretary told the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that “all the exchanges between my Department and News Corporation” were being published. But he has now admitted that he knew, when he gave that answer, that there were exchanges that he himself had authorised between his special adviser and News Corporation. Yet none of those exchanges was disclosed, and we have 163 pages to prove it.”

However, the point at issue here is whether Adam Smith, as a special adviser, can be considered formally a part of the Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Department. Certainly, Adam Smith would not be considered an authoritative voice of the Department, and his responsibility is to the minister personally, and the government as a whole (Section 3.3 of the ministerial code), rather than a specific department. It may therefore be possible to claim that what was said in Parliament was in fact true.

As such, if David Cameron were so inclined, it is possible to interpret everything that Labour allege as breaches of the Code as being within the letter of the Code. One thing, however, is reasonably certain: the public is unlikely to take kindly to arguments being based on such technicalities.


Paul Heywood and Jonathan Rose

On and on and on?

Today, David Cameron celebrates his 6th anniversary as Tory leader. Even before reaching this milestone, Cameron had already surpassed half his predecessors since 1945 (Anthony Eden, Alec Douglas-Home, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard). This time next year, he will have overtaken two more (John Major and Harold Macmillan).

A more telling comparison, perhaps, given the revival in Tory fortunes under his leadership, chronicled and explained in my recent book with Peter Dorey and Mark Garnett, is that by the time of the next General Election, presumably in 2015, Cameron will have led his party for longer than his three immediate predecessors put together. His likely longevity as leader is, of course, one consequence of the party’s return to office (albeit in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) in 2010. It is, however, only one: the other is the party’s system of electing its leader, something which makes it hard, but by no means impossible, for Cameron to be unseated, should events take a turn for the worse.

Until 1965, the Tory leader was selected via an informal ‘magic circle’. In February that year, the party unveiled a more transparent procedure, which provided for a series of eliminative ballots, up to a maximum of three, in which MPs (and they alone) cast a vote. Designed to preserve as many of the perceived advantages of the ‘magic circle’ as possible (including discretion; speed; the possible ‘emergence’ of a ‘compromise’ candidate, and deference to ‘expert’ opinion), the new rules changed practically everything else. In subsequent contests, candidates were increasingly aligned with ideological divisions in the party; campaigning became overt and organised; and, more often than not, the success (or otherwise) of such campaigns significantly affected the result. Certainly, Heath in 1975 and Thatcher in 1990 both failed to secure re-election thanks, in part, to their own badly managed campaigns.

In 1997, William Hague became the last leader to be elected under the 1965 rules. The following year, a new procedure was introduced. The changes were essentially twofold. First, the 1975 rule allowing a challenge to the incumbent every year was scrapped. Henceforth, 15 per cent of MPs would have to write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee demanding a vote of confidence in order to trigger a contest. If the leader won this initial vote (a simple majority would suffice), he or she would be immune to a further challenge for the next 12 months. If defeated, the leader would have to resign. A series of eliminative ballots among MPs would then follow. Once they had reduced the field to two candidates, party members would then vote for one or the other in a postal ballot.

In 2003, Iain Duncan Smith, the first leader elected under this system in 2001, was deposed by MPs following a vote of no confidence, and replaced, without a contest, by Michael Howard. In 2005, Cameron defeated David Davis in a postal ballot of party members, having fallen short of a majority, in actual votes, among MPs. The rules now dictate that only MPs (or Cameron himself) can decide when it’s time for him to go. At the time of writing, 46 Tory MPs would have to demand a motion of no confidence in Cameron’s leadership and 153 of them support it to force him to resign. While that is probably not going to happen any time soon, there is ample evidence to suggest not all Tory MPs are exactly thrilled with Cameron’s leadership. Witness the 81 rebels who voted against October’s three-line whip on Britain’s continuing membership of the EU (and there were plenty more who stayed loyal through gritted teeth). And, as I pointed out at the time, a majority of Tory MPs (104 on the first ballot, 108 on the second) actually voted for the two right-wing candidates, David Davis and Liam Fox, not Cameron, in the leadership election of 2005.

So, just as Margaret Thatcher threatened to do in 1987, Cameron might wish to go on and on. But to do that, he needs to keep his MPs on side.

Andrew Denham