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Newark: Cameron’s Survival Moment?

Last Updated: Friday, May 30th, 2014

The Newark by-election takes place in less than a week and, although the outcome is uncertain, we already know what will happen to at least one of the four main parties.

  • The Liberal Democrats will get a bad result and come fourth – if not lower.  Reports this week suggest that they have been too engaged by Nick Clegg’s latest troubles (and Vince Cable’s, and Lord Oakeshott’s, and Lord Rennard’s) to put effort into fighting the seat.  But they probably wouldn’t have done so anyway: Newark is not natural Liberal Democrat territory.  Those famous Liberal Democrat by-election posters – “Winning Here” – won’t be springing up all over the constituency next week.
  • Almost certainly, Labour will come third.  In a ComRes poll published yesterday evening, they were on 27 per cent, up five points on their result at the last election.  They are set to repeat the pattern of the Euro-elections – their vote will rise, but the result will be a bad result for them none the less.  Why?  Because this is a seat that Labour ought to win if on the verge of gaining a Commons majority: after all, they won it in 1997.  Third place would reinforce the view that Ed Miliband is struggling.
  • UKIP are at 28 per cent in that ComRes poll.  To win that percentage next week would mean a sevenfold increase in their vote from four years ago, and would confirm that we now have a four-party system in Britain, at least for the moment.  But it will not be a good enough result for UKIP, all the same, if it takes that share and the party comes second.  Very simply, Nigel Farage’s bandwagon needs to keep rolling, and to keep it rolling his party needs to win.
  • If UKIP’s need to win Newark is urgent, the Conservatives’ need is desperate.  A win would cement the impression given by the Euro-elections – that although the result was bad (the party came third in a national election for the first time in its history), Tory fortunes are on the turn.  A victory would be a setback for the UKIP bandwagon, put further pressure on Miliband and provide a springboard for the party conference season.  Furthermore, it would slay a dragon: the Conservatives haven’t held a by-election seat in government since 1988.

As I write, the Tories are far from certain to win.  They took 36 per cent in the ComRes poll.  An eight per cent lead over UKIP, a week out from polling day, isn’t a certain foundation for a win.  The question is: which of the two has momentum in UKIP?  Is it the Conservatives, whose operation is in excellent order, and are throwing the campaigning sink at the by-election (Tory MPs have been told to go there three times, as they were to by-elections during the last Parliament), or is it UKIP (which was undoubtedly the winner of the local and European elections held last week)?

We shall see.  But either way, Newark will provide an opportunity to reflect on the position of David Cameron.  Consider the many crises in his leadership: the same-sex marriage revolt, the persistent grumblings over the EU, the “omnishambles” budget, the Syria vote debacle.  His relationship with Conservative MPs – he won a minority of their votes in the 2005 leadership election, irritated them with his A-list of candidates, angered many with his handling of the expenses scandal, failed to win the 2010 election, tried to merge the 1922 Committee with his frontbench… the list of grudges and grievances is long.

If the Conservatives lose Newark, critics other than David Davis and Adam Afriyie will emerge.  In particular, the older generation of Tory Euro-sceptics – such as Bernard Jenkin and Bill Cash – will be well-placed to push Cameron on EU policy.  In retrospect, last summer offered the best opportunity to the hardcore critics of the Prime Minister, who number approximately 25 MPs.  Some of them hoped that the local election results last May would be bad enough to trigger a challenge to Cameron’s leadership.  But they just weren’t good enough for Labour to make it happen.

But the Conservatives win, the Prime Minister will be perfectly positioned to sail through the June and July Commons “silly season”, break for the summer, and come back revived for Party Conference.  David Davis and Adam Afriyie will continue to snipe from the wings.  But the critics who want to press him on EU policy will be swimming against the tide.  The Westminster Village will focus on Ed Miliband’s troubles.  And Cameron’s enemies will be forced to wait for the aftermath of an election that they believe will not deliver him that elusive Conservative majority.

However, an important moment will have been reached.  Cameron’s leadership will have survived the trials and troubles of this Parliament and the Coalition – unless Scotland votes Yes in the autumn; and it might even endure through that.  It will be a moment to mark if it happens.

By Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

Paul Goodman: Callanan for Commissioner  “All roads may not lead to Rome, but all considerations lead to Callanan.  He was a driving force behind making the ECR group work.  He knows how the Parliament and the Commission work.  Downing Street and Conservative MPs know him.  His Euro-sceptic views are long-standing, deeply-felt and real – as readers of his columns on this site will know.  His centre of gravity on Britain’s membership is roughly the party’s centre of gravity.  Yes, he has just lost a Euro-election.  But he won three others.  One of our present commissioners, bless her, has never stood for election at all.” Read more: http://bit.ly/1in0nLA

Ruth Davidson MSP: How we held our Euro-seat and grew our vote in Scotland  “We stuck to our campaign plan, using simple messaging over the European referendum “We’re the only party who will give you a say on Europe” while harnessing the power of being in the majority on the biggest political issue in Scotland right now – the independence referendum. To that end, our Party Election Broadcast, all of our literature and even our designation on the ballot paper – changed to “Scottish Conservatives – Vote No To Independence”…Organisationally, this was probably the most structured campaign we’ve run in recent times – direct contact was made with more than 90 per cent of all known Conservatives either in person or on the phone during the polling day knock up.” Read more: http://bit.ly/RA35GH

Lord Ashcroft: Labour’s lead narrows to two points in my weekly poll  “Labour’s lead has narrowed to two points in the Ashcroft National Poll conducted between 23 and 25 May. The finale of the Euro election campaign, together with the coverage of UKIP’s victory, has helped Nigel Farage’s party to 17% in my survey, with the Conservatives unchanged from last week on 29%, Labour down four points on 31%, and the Lib Dems down one on 8%. The UKIP share is the highest yet recorded in a national telephone poll…Now that the Euro elections are out of the way we can expect a return to the fundamentals of political debate, especially on the economy.” Read more: http://bit.ly/1my2dfi

Harry Phibbs: Democracy is not functioning in Tower Hamlets  “On Thursday there were plenty of police at polling stations – yet they were passive. It was a bit like the police in London in August 2011 during the earlier stages of the riots – standing and observing while the rioting and looting took place…I wrote on Friday about how I regarded Labour’s victory in my own borough of Hammersmith and Fulham as tainted – given that it was dependent on the lie that Charing Cross Hospital was closing. Yet at least my borough is a functioning democracy. Voters can decide what to believe. Tower Hamlets is on a different scale. The elections there are travesty. The conduct of elections needs to be taken out of the hands of Tower Hamlets Council – who have shown themselves unwilling or unable to meet the challenge.” Read more: http://bit.ly/1in18Ez

Peter Franklin: Theresa May and the future of the Conservative Party  “Last week Theresa May gave a speech that actually mattered. The Home Secretary used it to do that most conservative of things, which was to tell her audience – in this case the Police Federation – what they didn’t want to hear…One can only hope that the Home Secretary’s speech will inspire her colleagues to speak and act with equal clarity and fearlessness. For instance, if one were to hear anything of remotely equal significance from the Mayor of London, it would be easier to come to certain judgements about the future of the Conservative Party.” Read more: http://bit.ly/1nKUcoe

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