Defections and resignations – a rocky start to the Tory party conference
They’re waving union jacks in the hall of the Tory Party Conference in Birmingham but in a hectic high-octane three weeks of politics this flag was nearly ditched. In the short period since then, Parliament has voted authorising military action against Islamic State forces, another Tory has defected, Labour’s had a bit of a flop of a conference and there’s a minor sex scandal and resignation overnight.
The Tories had hoped to grab the headlines today with announcements on welfare cuts – a lower cap for benefits and an end to JSA for under 21s. Their message for the week – the plan they have been banging on about for some time is important for each and every one of you, whether you’re a pensioner, in work, young … whatever. Senior Tories claim they don’t recognise from their own polling Labour’s claim that Tory talk of “the plan is working” rubs voters up the wrong way.
In the Conference hall, Grant Shapps, Party Chairman, showed his anger at one of the big distractions: Mark Reckless’ defection to Ukip. He said the former Tory MP had “lied and lied and lied again” to colleagues. It’s a measure of the frustration his former allies feel but also a measure of the tension still around Tory high command about who is next. Everyone seems to think the defections haven’t finished. No-one believes for sure the denials that are tweeted out by suspects – MEP Daniel Hannan, MP Nigel Mills and others.
Senior Tories say they will contest Reckless’ seat much more hopefully than they are fighting in Clacton – a lost cause to the Tories in most people’s minds. At the top of the Tory Party they are kicking themselves that they ever allowed Mark Reckless to contest a parliamentary seat in their name.
David Cameron doesn’t intend to offer more definition on his renegotiation strategy to baying backbenchers on the grounds that it won’t shift many votes (and he doesn’t have much wriggle room anyway). Instead, he will hammer home the message about his offer of an in/out referendum on the basis that Tories still come across countless voters who haven’t got the already much repeated policy promise.
Senior Tories don’t think the cyber-antics of Brooks Newmark will dominate headlines for long. But they are acutely aware that the saga coinciding with divisions on Europe has echoes of the John Major years when sleaze and Tory divisions dominated headlines month after month.