Coffee House

Quietly, Cameron is preparing for his next big fight: the battle for Portsmouth

27 March 2013

6:26 PM

27 March 2013

6:26 PM

From tomorrow’s Spectator.

Downing Street aides nervously run through the symptoms: a flat economy, poor press, leadership mutterings. Then they say, ‘It’s just mid-term blues, isn’t it?’ A second later, they add nervously, ‘It’s nothing more serious than that, is it?’ The truth is, nobody can be certain. There’s no reliable way of distinguishing mid-term blues from something politically fatal.

Part of the problem is that few Tories have anything to compare their current mood with. After 13 years in opposition, only a handful of them have been in government before, let alone in the mid-term doldrums.

When I put this argument to one veteran of the Thatcher years, he delighted in pointing out that there was at least one person in No. 10 who knew what mid-term was like under Thatcher. Patrick Rock is Cameron’s policy fixer, having worked with him as a special adviser to Michael Howard in the Major years. But before that, he was a mid-term Tory by-election candidate under Thatcher. He lost spectacularly.

Rock might soon be feeling dejà vu. The man who beat him in that 1984 Portsmouth South by-election was Mike Hancock and there’s increasing speculation in Westminster that Hancock’s behaviour — as detailed by Julie Bindel in this magazine (‘Sex party’, 2 March) — may be about to prompt another by-election there.

The details of Rock’s defeat are a reminder of how volatile politics was in the 1980s. Portsmouth South had never been anything other than Tory. In 1983, they had won the seat with a majority of the votes cast. But a year later they lost it, albeit narrowly, to the SDP-Liberal Alliance.

The constituency was Tory enough to return to the party at the 1987 general election. But in 1997, it was lost to Hancock again and the Tories have yet to regain it. In a sign of how their grass roots have withered, senior Tories now dismiss their chances of taking it back because they have so few activists in the constituency. Instead, all the talk is of Ukip and whether they can go one better than they did in Eastleigh.


A Ukip by-election triumph would certainly darken the Tory mood. Even though Ukip won converts from all three parties in Eastleigh, it seems to be costing the Tories more than anyone else. As one minister says with a note of despair in his voice, ‘There’s always going to be a protest party in British politics and the problem for us now is that the protest party is uniquely well-suited to take support from us.’

This May’s local elections are only going to deepen the Tories’ mid-term blues. They have 1,477 seats to defend compared to just 255 for Labour. Even the optimists in No. 10 are braced for a loss of several hundred.

The Tories’ problem is that the last time these seats were contested was in 2009, at the last government’s nadir. It was after those elections that James Purnell resigned from the Cabinet, saying that Labour wouldn’t win under Gordon Brown. Back then the Tories were at 42 per cent in the opinion polls and Labour at 31 per cent. Now, the Tories are bobbing around the 30 per cent mark.

If the Tories lost more than a few hundred of these seats, it wouldn’t mean that defeat was inevitable in 2015. But it would increase the panic in the parliamentary party. MPs would return to their constituencies to be confronted by vanquished councillors who blamed the coalition in London for their fate. The danger for the Tories is that it becomes a vicious circle: if those MPs then lambasted the leadership, it would make the party look divided and weaken its position still further.

The Prime Minister polls ahead of his party and it is hard to see anyone on the Tory benches who would do better than him electorally. But this hasn’t stopped some Tory MPs from agitating for a leadership contest. ‘No change, no chance’ — that old rallying cry of the Tory disaffected — is on the lips of too many MPs for the Cameroons’ comfort.

One Cabinet minister who has investigated the matter believes that 25 letters of no confidence have been sent to the chairman of the 1922 Committee. The rebels need 46 to prompt a vote, so if this is accurate, they’re more than halfway.

What then will snap the Tories out of their mid-term blues? I suspect it’ll take a sense that the party can win, or at least hold its own, in 2015. MPs who believe they’ll keep their seats keep their heads more than those who think they won’t.

The arrival of Lynton Crosby, who ran the Tories’ campaign in 2005 and has twice helped Boris Johnson to victory in London, has certainly boosted morale. Many of the MPs who feel that the Cameron set don’t get their constituents’ concerns believe that Crosby does. They’ve taken to crediting him with every improvement they see. After Cameron addressed the 1922 Committee on Monday night, one Tory backbencher — and occasional Cameron critic — said to me: ‘Much better, Crosby’s clearly honing him.’

Crosby’s return has coincided with an increase in the energy levels at Conservative Campaign Headquarters under the new chairman, Grant Shapps. Shapps is now seeing Tory MPs in marginal seats on a regular basis, ensuring that the party does everything it can to help them in 2015. Basic politics, of course — of a kind that the Tory high command has neglected for too long.

But for Tory MPs to really start to believe, the economy will have to pick up. A few quarters of sustained growth would change the political weather. Given that Osborne leads Balls as the public’s preferred Chancellor even in the current climate, one imagines that a recovery would put the shadow chancellor under acute pressure.

There is a question, though, about whether the Tory party really wants to snap out of its funk. Among a surprisingly large number of backbenchers there’s a sense that a spell in opposition and a renewal of the party’s radicalism might be for the best. One new Tory MP told me he was already thinking about the leadership contest that would follow a defeat. He had a list of the 250 colleagues he expected to survive and was busy working out which of the various contenders fared best with this group.

The Tories’ fate is in their own hands. If No.10 becomes more political and if the party is prepared to be patient then it has a good chance in 2015. But those are very big ifs.

Listen to James Forsyth discussing a Portsmouth South by-election (at 10:28)

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Show comments
  • Schmucky Zucky

    If he comes to Portsmouth, there will be hundreds of people waiting to fuck him up. Tories not welcome in Portsmouth. Thanks.

  • ballnshine

    Voting Tory is a wasted vote.

  • Rhoda Klapp4

    Why has the headline changed from the one which inspired the comments yesterday? I’d have a completely different nasty quip for this headline. But I think we can leave the Portsmouth by-election for the time when the seat is actually vacant, can’t we?

    No? Well, I predict that tory ground game will be completely underwhelming. The seat will go to LD or UKIP, tories third or fourth. I predict Cameron will continue to look desperate and will continue to blame back-benchers, or poor communication, or treachery, or anything you like except the real reason.

  • Mynydd

    Forget about MP’s and their “mid-term blues” it’s the members “early-term blues” Mr Cameron should be worried about. These blues started when he failed to win an overall majority when everything was in his favour. It darkened when hundreds of councilors lost, and are still losing, their seats. It is now “mid-night-blue” with the council and EU elections coming up with, fewer and fewer members out on the door step. No matter how you spin it, it’s down to Mr Cameron’s lack of leadership, lack of action only talk talk, lack of policies members can believe in, the list could go on and on. “The Tories’ fate is in their own hands” yes, time for the men in gray suits.

  • Its_not_craig

    James, the only person you’re convincing with all this “it’s the message, not the government” nonsense is yourself.

    I and many others are just waiting for the day we can get rid of Dave, George and Nick and get our party back.

    I’ve never understood why journalists feel the need to be so sycophantic towards this or that party. And especially towards a chameleon like Cameron whose only definition is that he doesn’t have one.

  • Boudicca_Icenii

    It’s not “mid-term blues” – it’s meltdown.
    Cameron wanted to drive away his right wing vote and its the only thing he’s been successful at. He’s managed to alienate just about every social group where natural Conservative votes are found. And he’s got no BBC/Guardianista ones to replace them.
    Kelvin MacKenzie – ex editor of The Sun – predicts a Labour landslide in 2015. And if he’s right, that will be the end of the Conservative Party. It won’t survive another annhialation like 1997 – not its current manifestation anyway. Conservative votes now reside with UKIP.

  • peterbuss

    Unbelievable nonsense from the rebels- “a spell in Opposition might do us good”. For crying out loud we have just spent 13 yrs in Opposition !

  • O M

    And this is the man who gave us the Fixed-term Parliaments Act: an act so stuffed full of vanity I hope it explodes in Cameron’s face.

  • O M

    To your question: no.

  • Rockin Ron

    Cameron dead man walking. End of.

  • paulus

    I have to agree with Tom, the conservatives have no hope what so ever, continuing with an energy policy like this, its ludicrous.

    There is only one hope and that is to state catagorically that come the next election they will reverse this policy. Circumstances have changed, we are bankrupt technically and can no longer afford gesture politics, we must put all the blame on the libs.

  • berosos_bubos

    The postive expectations for the Conservatives on the economy in 2010 have been dashed and people and businesses will now be reacting accordingly by reigning in expenditure. Despite 13 years of sheer misery and incompetance the present incumbants learnt nothing and have continued as before. What were they doing whilst in opposition ?
    I might add that the expectations for Labour are not the same and in a way it doesn’t matter as their constituency base comes from the recipients of benefits, public sector workers and immigrants wishing to bring in their extended family.

  • SP Resident

    Of course the tories are not going to win. they verge between incompetence and facism. lalbour will get in by default and we’re off 🙂

    • Tom Tom

      I am not sure anyone will gain a majority or be accepted as a government. think Italy, think Greece.

  • Curnonsky

    The Conservatives’ basic problem is that Cameron is much better at internal party maneuvers than at governing, so even though there is little prospect things will get better no-one is likely to replace him before the next election, a sure recipe for electoral disaster. Pity the MPs who can only sit and watch as the inevitable unfurls, like some weary WWI infantrymen reading for their general’s next suicidal advance.

    • Boudicca_Icenii

      Think of Lord Cardigan and the Charge of the Light Brigade ….. and you have Cameron and the result he is inflicting on the CONservative Party.

  • Rhoda Klapp4

    Obviously time for an inspiring speech. And a policy initiative on whatever the next focus group coughs up. It may be days before we work out that the EU or some other outfit won’t allow the policy. How’s that abu qatada thing going?

  • Russell

    Cameron & many Tory Ministers are deluded thinking there is anything mid-term about what the electorate think of the Tories. Many (possibly millions) like me have been life-long supporters who will not vote Tory in this years council elections, next years MEP elections or the 2015 General Election, but will be voting UKIP in all three.
    Camerons pro EU position, failure to deport people who are a threat to the UK, ridiculously light prison sentences for serious criminals, stupid ‘climate change’ so called green taxes, windmills and their subsidies, HS2, lack of addressing the unaffordable public sector and maintaining executive non jobs on obscene salaries/pensions, lack of Quango reduction……and a lot more.

    • 2trueblue

      The reason we know what is going on is we have a left wing media who daily pound out their version of the facts. Look at any of the scandals of events that happened during those 13yrs and how they are being presented to us. There is very little light being thrown on who was responsible and no one who was in power taking responsibility and apologising. Our TV is full every day of MPs from the opposition giving their views. I fail to remember seeing MPs from the opposition over the previous 13yrs getting any airtime.

      Yet over 13yrs we knew nothing, except what Liebore and the BBC thought we could absorb. We were fed soundbites, lies, and they were repeated so often they were believed. It had no substance, and yet still we were hoodwinked. Now we know the price of that we are still sleep walking into letting Liebore back.

      • jimmy mac

        I find it particularly bad on local TV here in the North West. It’s the most unbalanced journalism I have ever seen.

        • 2trueblue

          I think the key is that they are not real journalists.

      • Russell

        So true. And even now the BBC & Sky wheel out smarmy Chris Leslie, Chris Bryant, Keyth Vaz, Margaret Hodge, Joan Bakewell etc. almost daily to criticise the government without any reply from government Ministers.
        These dreadful examples of human beings are allowed to talk without interruption, without question, never asked to explain why all these events such as Stafford, Phone hacking, MP’s expenses, Immigration, welfare fraud, child abuse (baby P) took place under Labour!

        • 2trueblue

          And yet the BBC denies any bias!

  • ButcombeMan

    “the symptoms: a flat economy, poor press, leadership mutterings”

    Your order of words is wrong, it should read “poor leadership, press mutterings”.

    The best chance for the Tories and the country, is not changing Cameron for another leader, it is Cameron changing..

    He will not be the first leader of an organisation who has to grow into the job.

    He scores better than his party and all the other leaders, because of the abysmal quality of his opponents.

    He still did not win against the worst Chancellor & Prime Minister in living memory,

    Unless he is prepared to change, he will not win in 2015 either.

    He needs to listen to the electorate more.

    UKIP is listening and people from all parties are listening to UKIP.

    What is Crosby up to?

    • Boudicca_Icenii

      Cameron can’t change – he is who (and what) he is. A man with a highly privileged background, who had a gilded ridet through life courtesy of daddy’s money and contacts; who has never lived in “the real world” as ordinary working people see it; who’s never had a serious job outside politicis; who’s never had to struggle or fight for anything (except his late son); a member of the Elite who believe they are “born to rule.”
      He – and his party – have ignored demands to stop mass immigration and to leave the EU. He and his party will reap what they have sown by betraying the British people and outsourcing our governance to the EU.

      • ButcombeMan

        I do not buy the “privileged background” crap, that is just irrelevant. He cannot change that, nor does it mean he could not be an effective party leader & Prime Minister. You are just repeating a Socialist propaganda meme

        It is his policies that have to change. He needs to listen more to the electorate. He also needs to get a grip on Gideon or even get rid of him and put Hammond in there.

        Russell puts some if it better, though even he misses out the pointless personal Cameron agenda, on changing the definition of marriage, thus hopelessly alienating many core supporters and a large portion of the immigrant vote.

        It was just bad political management. Crass & pointless. Never thought through.

        • info

          He needs to reverse the child benefit clawback policy for a start. He will look back when he is defeated in 2015 and realise this on the hoof policy set the tone for his shambolic policy making.

          • ButcombeMan

            Benefits do have to be reduced some how. Ordinary rate tax payers subsiding higher rate tax payers child benefit payments, is ridiculous. It just demonstrates the stupidy of the Welfare System and the pickle we are in.

            The biggest mistake Osborne has made (and Cameron lets him make it) is not doing something about Stamp Duty on house sales. It needs drastically lowering and smoothing. Far better than the state susidising mortgages.

            The consequent loss of stanp duty would be covered by increased VAT on, house change related, expenditure.

            • Nicholas K

              The obvious solution to the Child Benefit dilemma is to cap the benefit at two children; immigration is more than making up for any shortfall in the replacement rate through births and anyway, a modest fall in the population would be no bad thing.

            • Martin Kenna

              yes they do we need to stop spending millions of tax payers money on the biggest bennifit claimers of them all THE ROYAL FAMILY! Some people have worked lost there jobs claim bennifits, thats one thing. However, this lot have never done a days work in there life yet morons in this shower of a brain washed nation not only willingly give them tax money but glorify them. And all these expenses our worthless leaders are getting at the tax payers expense needs to be sorted, but i don’t see them doing that, as usual its the lion picking on the small helpless mouse in the corner. Get this lot out there cowards bullies, and people are at fault for letting them dictate to them. When i say dictatorship thats what it is the last 2 leaders of this country have not been chosen by the people. Its time the people told the public servents what their job really is. We do not serve them, they serve us, and they need stopping until they give us exactly what we voted for.

  • telemachus

    But for Tory MPs to really start to believe, the economy will have to pick up. A few quarters of sustained growth would change the political weather. Given that Osborne leads Balls as the public’s preferred Chancellor even in the current climate, one imagines that a recovery would put the shadow chancellor under acute pressure.
    Problem is there is no prospect of growth

    • Russell

      The only growth has been in UKIP party membership and support. Labour are useless and I believe will get a very disappointing GE result along with the Tories and the LibDems.

    • Tom Tom

      There is no basis for economic recovery. €5 BILLION in Cash were transported to Cyprus to prevent a bank collapse. That is almost Friedmanite ‘helicopter money’. Osborne should have bought up all the credit card debt and cancelled it instead of taxing savers to subsidise mortgage borrowers to pay down debt and sucking money out of the economy. Even refinancing credit card debt from 29% to 0.5% would have boosted consumption and have been far cheaper

      • Nicholas K

        Indeed, Bank of England base rate has been artifically depressed, to the benefit of no one except bankers, who persist in charging usurious interest rates to the untermensch living in what is charmingly called the “real economy”. It would be better to direct the assistance straight to those people, doing it through the banks just isn’t working.

  • AnotherDaveB

    “… if those MPs then lambasted the leadership, it would make the party look divided and weaken its position still further.”

    Andrew Lilico had good piece on ‘splits’:

    “Mid-term splits in parties are a key part of debate in a Parliamentary democracy.

    We don’t determine policy by opinion poll, and we don’t elect Prime Ministers for a term. MPs are elected for four or five years and in that time it is their job to determine (or technically to advise the Queen as to) who will be Prime Minister and what policies will be brought in.

    The modern notion that a General Election manifesto should contain a list of policy promises which it is the elected government’s task to enact is a perversion of Parliamentary democracy. A party is fundamentally a collection of MPs within Parliament, and those MPs must in the last analysis determine who leads them.”

    • Tom Tom

      That is so true. It is Communist in fact, perhaps even Fascist but clearly Leninist from his days of walking out in 1902 and creating his minority party as “Bolshevik” or majority clique brooking no dissent. Too many ideologues have lost the notion of politics as being to SERVE the voters and see it as S-election of a Master Class

  • Tom Tom

    James Forsyth is so out of touch he might as well be a geodesic balloon orbiting the earth. It is very cold and lots of people are snowed in around me wondering how they can afford heating, cars are stuck, some crashed into walls. Winter is more cruel at Easter than at Christmas. Still you don’t see the incongruity in Drax sitting on the Yorkshire coalfield being forced to import wood chips from the USA because Yorkshire coal is taxed and US woodchips are subsidised ? The total lunacy of this regime, the half-witted, dunderhead policies on top of a criminally lunatic economic policy which has crushed the economy under accelerating import prices for food, fuel, energy and crashing interest income and firms hammered by business rates and energy costs struggling to survive. Do you have any idea James Forsyth how Cameron, Clegg, Osborne come over ? Don’t you think people want to skin them alive ? The Conservatives are back to where they were in the 1930s revelling in the misery they are imposing with their National Liberal friends.

    If you were able to get out of your student digs and travel in this country and see how people are living you might understand how dead the Tories are – dead for the future – because they have totally blown the one chance they were given since 1997…..and Cameron has kicked everyone in the teeth in an act of vain and preening stupidity together with the total idiot he put in the Treasury, a man who makes Gordon Brown look like his mentor.

    • alexsandr

      but its not just the tories. labour and liberal are as bad. our political class, and their embedded journos have failed us big time. The journos will get hit by collapsing paper circulations. Hopefully the politicians will get their wake up call as UKIP continue their rise.

      • Tom Tom

        When the Telegraph and Sun journos get trapped behind a paywall their influence is capped…..only groupies will pay for access in every paper

  • Daniel Maris

    No. Next question.

  • Archimedes

    Labour dipped below 40% in the polls today for the first time since November. This wasn’t on the back of a Conservative surge — it was on the back of a LibDem recovery. That’s not fantastic news, but there’s good reason to believe that the poll is accurate, at least of an underlying trend: the LibDem vote is recovering to some degree and Labour have reached their polling peak, and will presumably decline somewhat between now and the election.

    Labour’s lack of a compelling message, capable of winning an election, is disguised only by the divided nature of the Tories. There is nothing interesting about Ed Miliband’s Labour — it doesn’t properly grasp any of the questions people have, and it doesn’t have the conviction of any answers.

    The coalition has actually delivered an extraordinary amount in office, so far. There are a lot of policies and reforms to be positive about. When the election comes, even Nick Clegg will have a more compelling message to deliver than Labour about what the LibDems think the problems are, and how they think they need to be fixed. Now that the LibDems have stopped their policy of differentiation, both parties are starting to look more competent: that’s a problem for Labour.

    Labour has much bigger issues than the Conservatives do and, if the Conservatives would step tearing themselves apart, those issues would be getting more attention.

    • Russell

      The only positive about this Tory government has been Gove in Education. The only positive for the LibDem government has been the increased personal allowance. Not a lot even though it has only been 3 years.

      • 2trueblue

        There is one really positive thing about this government, it is not the Liebore lot. We are in deep trouble but with Balls, Millipede, Burnham and the rest we would be a lot worse off. Not a great consolation but a thought.

    • 2trueblue

      The Conservatives biggest problem is the left wings unified front of the BBC, the Gaurdian, Independant, the Bishops, and all the left wing institutes that rent themselves daily for quotes on our T.V. They need to get their own house in order and deliver some unity of their own that reflects positivity.

      • Archimedes

        To be honest, it makes me a little sad to hear this kind of stuff. If you go over to the New Statesman you see lots of comments from people outraged by policy, and arguing viciously against it. You come to CoffeeHouse and you see a bunch of people complaining that the competition is unfair. I believe in competition.

        These people that oppose us only do so because we haven’t created arguments compelling enough for them to sell. These are (the Guardian, the BBC, the Independent) creative people, and they’re really quite easy to convince — you just have to show them a side of the coin they’ve not seen before, and their desire to be open-minded and privy to new knowledge will trump their political persuasions.

        • 2trueblue

          Hardly competition when the BBC which we pay for is the advertising agent for Liebore, and distinctly anti this government.

        • 2trueblue

          Well there you are, broadened your horizons already.

          The BBC etc are certainly creative, and they have only one focus, to support Liebore. They are not open minded. They have one view and it is clearly not to give the current government any quarter.

      • Tom Tom

        So you watch and read these sources. Most people do NOT. They live their own lives and experiences. You must mix in circles that waste money on newspapers which suggests they have £45/month to blow on newspapers….people do not watch BBC….you are dreaming

        • 2trueblue

          So you just get your information from one source?

  • Ray Veysey

    The Tories are in danger of splitting the UKIP vote in 2015, which would be a disaster allowing Labour back to power. Causing that could be the death knell for the Tories as we know them

    • telemachus

      Have the last 3years shown they are fit to survive?

    • George_Arseborne

      What do you expect when relying on an old tired strategist in the person of Lynton Crosby? He failed Micheal Howard. Boris won by his charisma.

  • the viceroy’s gin

    Dave couldn’t snap a dry twig. The only mood snapping that lump could possibly do is if he poured 5 gallons of gasoline over his head and lit a match, like one of those Buddhist monks.

    Short of that, this is all just marking time. And none of that time was spent reading anything much of the Speccie lickspittle’s blog post.

  • Michael990

    Tinkering with ‘the message’ matters not a jot. It’s still the same old left wing party. Yesterday’s men, until the main policy, that of pandering to the EU, is fixed.

  • CraigStrachan

    It’s some way past mid-term.