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What Cameron should say (and won’t) when he loses the Rochester by-election

Posted on 18 November 2014 | 10:11am

‘Mr Cameron did not cause the rise of UKIP, and he can’t stop it.’ In an otherwise very intelligent analysis of the Prime Minister’s problems, the FT’s Janan Ganesh is wrong in the first part of that sentence. Mr Cameron did cause the rise of UKIP, when he offered an In-Out referendum.

Until then, they were like the SDP and its successors used to be. Mid-term irritants getting more media attention than their actual support deserved, but not taken too seriously by parties which knew that come the election minds would return to the more important question of who the country actually wants to govern.

In granting the referendum, against his own beliefs and actually against his own strategic interests (such as he ever has them) Cameron suddenly gave legitimacy and perceived seriousness to a bunch of populists who, as I learned when I interviewed Nigel Farage for GQ, really aren’t very serious at all. Farage admitted he would be a hopeless Prime Minister and also that he didn’t actually have a clue what the party’s policies were, as revealed when I read things to him (since removed) which were on his website.

When historians mark Cameron as one of the worst Prime Ministers the country has ever known (who else could make John Major come across like a modern day cross between Churchill and Attlee for heaven’s sake?) they will do so by focusing on his perennial problem – he always always always puts tactics ahead of strategy.

There are touches of that in Ganesh’s piece, with reminders of when Cameron was going to be a modernising compassionate Conservative who cared about climate change and wanted to create a Big Society (R.I.P). Now another tactical intervention is planned for the day after he loses a second by-election to UKIP, with yet another, even ‘tougher’ speech on immigration. And it will do him as much good as his last tough speech on immigration, or his totally tactical ‘English votes for English laws’ intervention on the morning after the referendum on Scottish independence.

Here is what he should have said on the morning of September 19. ‘Well, we won and I am grateful to the 55 percent who voted No. But I take no satisfaction, and I take plenty of warning, from the fact that 45 per cent of a hugely important part of the UK wanted to leave our country. So there is no celebration, but a lot of work to make sure we properly understand why, and to make sure we make good – quickly – on the promises we made to give Scots and indeed others around the UK a greater say in the running of their communities.’

Instead, we had a piece of pure political posturing (I would have added ‘pathetic’ but it would have meant too many ps) which at the moment at which the Union was saved laid down a gigantic new foundation stone upon which those seeking separation could build. In that moment alone he showed he is incapable of strategic leadership and so actually unfit to the PM of a great country.

As to what he should say when UKIP win the by-election, I would recommend as follows: ‘I am sorry to lose this by-election. This close to a general election, it is not good for the party of government to see so many people preferring a protest vote for a party offering simplistic and unworkable solutions to parties prepared to make the difficult choices that parties of government have to make.

‘So between now and polling day my challenge is to show that a vote for UKIP is a vote not to strengthen Britain but to weaken it. It is a vote for values that most decent British people do not actually possess, including those who voted for them. Intolerance. Playing the blame game. Scape goating. Stirring up nasty prejudices because it is easier than putting forward policies that actually stand up to scrutiny and that can actually lead to change for the better.

‘I am also clear about two things. There have to be rules on immigration. But the idea that Britain is being destroyed by immigrants, the vast bulk of whom do enormous good for our country, is nonsense and I will expose it as such. Second, it was a Conservative Prime Minister who led us into the EU, and I will not be the Conservative Prime Minister who leads us out, because it would be a disaster for the UK.

‘Having promised a referendum, I cannot go back on that promise. A large part of me wishes I had withstood the pressure to call for one in the first place, because no part of me believes it will be in our national interest to leave. The fight to win the argument on immigration, and to win the fight on Europe, begins now. I will lead those fights because they are fundamental to our future strength and unity. It is time to stop debating that future on the basis of myths and lies. It is time for my Party to face up to a few realities. So to anyone tempted to defect to UKIP, do it now. For anyone tempted to believe that we can meet the challenges of tomorrow by embracing the values and ideas of a yesterday that didn’t exist, go now.

‘For my part, I have tried for too long to be something I am not. I am not a Eurosceptic. I am not a Little Englander. I am not going to allow Nigel Farage any say in the direction of my party or our country because his vision is flawed, his values are wrong and I was right first time – his policies are frankly those of fruitcakes and closet racists, though I regret using the word “nutters” as well.

‘So there you have it. We have lost a by-election. But we can win the bigger fight for the future direction of our country. I for one feel liberated by realising that in trying to pander to these people, we merely serve their not our interests, nor the real interests of Britain. So I will let Mr Farage get on with the business of mythologising. I will get on with the business of leading, and governing, and trust the good judgement of people to see where our true interests as a country lie.’

Even as I write that, I know two things. It would actually help him in the election. And secondly, there is not the slightest chance of him doing it. Because with Cameron, tactics beat strategy every bloody time.

And the message for Labour here is clear: this lot are beatable. They can – and should – be beaten on the economy, and I have been banging on about how for the whole Parliament. They can – and should – be beaten on Europe,  on public services, on welfare reform, on austerity, on climate change, on the lack of Olympic sporting legacy, on devolution; on virtually any subject you care to mention, this is a government unclear of its purpose, failed in its core strategic goal – wipe out the deficit in a single Parliament, driven to despair by Farage, with an unpopular leader and a Cabinet, with one or two exceptions, of total lightweights.

— Enough of politics now. Today is above all the day when England’s football fans get a lesson in real atmosphere, real noise, real passion, real support, rather than the antiseptic Ingerlandness of Wembley. If support can win football matches, it will be 5-0 to Scotland tonight. Quality of player also comes into it, so I am going for 2-1 instead.


  • DanielNSmith

    Good analysis. Spot on about John Major coming across well. Cones hot-line, anyone?

  • Stephen Shelagh Ibbs

    Sadly destined to join that collection of excellent speeches never delivered. Though if it helps the Tories win, then let us hope he ignores your blog !

  • ClaytonandKerry McCranor

    The best speech Cam will never make 😉

  • Glen Kristensen

    Please, for the love of god, take a taxi to Ed M’s office and help him craft this kind of clear minded, sharp, incisive messaging? Otherwise I fear it’s another 5 years of ‘this lot’.

  • Count Rollo

    Make no mistake, -Vote UKIP Get UKIP, Vote labcon, Get THERAPY!

  • reaguns

    I disagree Alastair. I think had Cameron not offered the referendum, a lot more tories would have got together, and either joined ukip en masse, or maybe even staged an attempt at a putsch, or perhaps the latter followed by the former.

    This may not have captured the public’s imagination as much, but surely would have done Cameron far more damage, and that’s why he offered the referendum. And to be honest, I think deep down you know this.

    Perhaps you genuinely believe he should have done to his eurosceptics what Blair did to his socialist internal enemies with section 4 or section 8 or whatever it was called, but those were different times and, as you well know, Cameron is not Blair. By that, not only do I mean that he mightn’t have the guts to do that, but I mean he does not have the charisma and capital that Blair had in order to carry that through.

  • Michele

    I wonder whether David Cameron will boast about the service he has done to anyone that used to regard LibDems as being of a higher moral status than any others until 2010?

    From the media today:
    As for the Liberal Democrats, a single figure sums up their night – 0.87.

    That was the party’s vote percentage last night.

    Not even one in 100 people decided to vote for Nick Clegg’s party.

    In 2010, 7,800 people backed them in Rochester; last night it was 349.

  • reaguns

    I wonder can anyone tell me the relationship between the term “populists” which labour greets practically as a swear word, and between “spin doctors” and “eye catching initiatives”, which to me would be two nods to populism yet in terms labour looks on more favourably.

  • Ehtch

    I did a vid for Nick Clegg at about 5am this morning. What is wrong with those council workers, don’t they know how to count? Why did it take so effing long??? 4.25am declaration!!!

    (WHOOPS! YT tells me it is “blocked in some countries”. As long as it is not UK I will be happy enough) : )

  • reaguns

    What about that Emily Thornberry eh? I am glad to be rid of her, to me she is the most hateful and smug politician I have ever seen, worse than Cameron, Clegg, Huhne, Salmond, or any other smug ones which don’t come to mind at the minute.

    But did she go for the right reasons. Well if, as the media and political world seem to have accepted without challenge, she was saying by that photograph “Look at these parochial / yokel / disgusting / common / white van driving / football team supporting chavs, oh we north london liberal metropolitan elites do hate them so, any wonder we can’t win a vote from such ghastly people” then she indeed has to go, and Ed was right to get mad, and give her the heave ho.

    If on the other hand she was saying “England flag outside the house = Probable BNP/EDL supporter = that’s the kind of guy who votes ukip now” then I am sure most people would agree, even though labour have to say “we just love people who fly the flag, yeah, that’s why in hampstead and islington the st jeremy’s cross hangs everywhere and… er… what’s that? Oh it’s called St George’s is it? Ok fair enough… yeah we love the flags us…”

    However if it is the latter, then she should have specified that. She hasn’t, so she deserves to go.

    And anyway, I expect it was a bit of both.

    So funny to see the story develop from:
    1. Thornberry posts snobby picture.
    2. Thornberry goes into smug smart alec mode by claiming that when this is seen as Islington snobbery, that is snobbery against Islington lol!
    3. Thornberry takes a long walk down a short alley with Tom Baldwin.
    4. Thornberry apologises and backs down, half of that smug smirk wiped off her face.
    5. Ed Miliband gets madder and madder.
    6. Thornberry is sacked. The rest of the smug smirk wiped off.

    • Michele

      Ah, should have re-read this one before writing an earlier post today Grrrrr

  • reaguns

    “simplistic and unworkable solutions” Now Alastair, that’s no way to talk about energy price caps and mansion taxes, give the bloke a chance.

  • reaguns

    “Second, it was a Conservative Prime Minister who led us into the EU”
    Brilliant. So Alastair talks about poor strategy, or tactics instead of strategy by Cameron, and of the poor historical legacy Cameron will suffer, and infavourable comparisons with other PMs – and then praised Ted Heath! Ted Heath!!

    Ted Heath who is:
    – Regarded as a worse prime minister than either Major or Cameron, probably only beaten to last place by Brown;
    – Made the purely tactical decision to join the EU because he thought there was no other way to fix the British economy, because he thought the EU would overrule British trade unions, and because he thought that joining the EU would force Britain to be more capitalist than it would otherwise be. All of which tactically failed on their own terms, but strategically caused far greater challenges in the long term than they ever could have fixed in the short term.

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  • Michele

    Such a good article re the stupid stupid attacks on Emily Thornberry

    She was not ‘sneering at somebody that works hard’, none of us know how hard the little Englander works, it has nada to do with the topic she was raising (not that it was a wise tweet in any circumstances that night of all nights).

  • Michele

    Regrettable that I keep harking back to this thread when it’s 2m old!

    Re the continuing punishment (this time to Mitchell) being meted out during another ‘pleb’ situation?

    What I’ve never seen mentioned is that it happened on the very night that May had published her changes to Police pensions, changes I’m sure her biker colleague would have enjoyed seeing.

    That team had certainly been treating all Police like plebs all day. I’m not sure the Judge who’s just thrown out the biker’s court applications will be aware of the coincidence but if so, well done that man.