This weekend of the “mad, swivel-eyed loons” row will swiftly be followed by Commons debate on the same-sex marriage bill. Will Conservative MPs accept Lord Feldman's denial, view the incident as yet another instance of media irresponsbility, and look more sympathetically on the measure - on which David Cameron has staked part of his political reputation? Or will the report only harden the opposition to it - since some will conclude, regardless of what they think of Lord Feldman's denial, that his words represent what Downing Street thinks anyway?
The answer will become clear over the next few days. What is evident this morning, however, is that what Cabinet Ministers do and say about the bill will be watched very closely indeed. The Sunday Telegraph confirms that Chris Grayling will support amendments that aim to protect people who work in the public sector and believe that marriage is between men and women - and that Owen Paterson and David Jones will oppose the bill at Third Reading. The logical extension of Philip Hammond's pointed remarks on Question Time last week is that he should, too.
By Andrew Gimson
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UKIP has reached its highest level ever in an opinion poll: 20% in the Opinium/Observer poll. A ComRes poll for the Independent on Sunday and Sunday Mirror has UKIP on 19%, while ICM in the Sunday Telegraph puts the party on 15%.
The three established parties are all in the doldrums. Taking the three polls in the same order as I have used for UKIP, Labour is at 37%, 35% and 32%; the Conservatives at 27%, 29% and 29%; while the Lib Dems find themselves on 7%, 8% and 16%.
This is a bad time for the Tories to be preoccupied by the question of whether someone in the high command has referred to the party's footsoldiers as "swivel-eyed loons". Nor can Labour feel happy to be recording such modest leads over the Conservatives as 10%, 6% and a mere 3%.
Andrew Feldman has issued a statement as follows: "There is speculation on the internet and on Twitter that the senior Conservative Party figure claimed to have made derogatory comments by the Times and the Telegraph is me. This is completely untrue. I would like to make it quite clear that I did not, nor have ever described our associations in this way or in any similar manner. I am taking legal advice."
The question that obviously follows is whether some other person with "strong social connections to the Prime Minister and close links to the party machine", as the Times (£) put it this morning, spoke the contested words. This seems not to be the case, and Lord Feldman's statement confirms that he is indeed the man at the centre of this controversy. I understand that a conversation between him and several lobby journalists took place at a dinner earlier this week.
There are activists in every Party whose eyes aren't entirely steady in their sockets. And swivel eyes, to mangle a metaphor, cut both ways - see here. But most Conservative members are normal enough. Tory activists are not untypical of the class which, if one takes a romantic view, has been the backbone of England for centuries - and, even if one takes a prosaic one, works (largely in the private sector), earns, provides, saves, and gives generously to charity. A high proportion of the members I know are involved in their local communities: indeed, they are the Big Society. But Tory members have undergone one significant change in the last 25 years or so. They are, on the whole, older people. The Conservative Party has been hit hard by the hollowing-out of conventional politics.
The response of the Party leadership, since 2005, could have been to strive for new members - or, alternatively, to abandon the concept of membership, and seek to build a new movement based on overlapping interest groups. Its view of what to do about declining membership has ebbed and flowed as Party Chairmen have come and gone, but one big point is clear. People who join political parties want to have a say in them - or at least a sense of ownership. At a national level, party members have no more say than when David Cameron became leader. And at a local level, they have less: the power of local members to select their own Parliamentary candidates has been diminished by the vogue for primaries. Membership costs £25 a year: no small sum. Payment is followed by a steady stream of letters and e-mails asking for more.
CCHQ and Downing Street (when the Party is in office) has massive power over local Associations which is sometimes arbitrarily wielded: if you doubt it, read Mark Wallace on this site this week on the subject of the present Euro-selections. In short, the Conservative Party is trapped in a spiral of failure as far as membership is concerned. The smaller the membership becomes, the less its leadership trusts it - and the less its leadership trusts it, the smaller its membership becomes. (Meanwhile, UKIP membership rises.) But it doesn't follow that because it's small, it has no influence all - it does, albeit in a very narrow compass. MPs are reliant on their local Associations for support in tough political times - and sometimes fellowship, too. That's why so many of them voted for the Baron Euro-amendment in the Commons this week.
This is the event that triggered the observations on the rotation frequency of actvists' eyeballs by a "member of the inner circle" with "strong social connections to the Prime Minister and close links to the party machine". But if the party on the ground is not in a good way, whose fault is that? Doesn't it lie as much with David Cameron - to whom this person is apparently close - as with activists who have often worked hard for the Party for many years, and will still be working hard when the present leadership has moved on? Since there are few "members of the Prime Minister's inner circle" with "social connections" to him and "close links to the pary machine", I imagine that the secret will probably be out by Monday. I refrain from guessing only because my inkling may be wrong. But I wonder if the position of this mystery man will become untenable.
The Financial Times this morning reports the conduct of a Cabinet Minister who arrived at his Department in a position of strength. Philip Hammond is digging in over cuts to his budget. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail reports the plans of another, who came to his Department in a position of weakness. Jeremy Hunt is planning for prescriptions to be available online. The latter Minister is more exposed to public wrath than the former. Rightly or wrongly, voters are more concerned about the NHS than defence, and the Conservatives have long been targetted on the health service by their opponents. Remember Tony Blair claiming in 1997 that Britain had a fortnight to save the NHS?
Tim Montgomerie set out on this site last year how the Health Secretary aims "to be angrier than any voter at NHS failures". But Hunt's plan to champion the interests of patients is only part of his larger strategy to improve the health service - and, in the process, leave the Department stronger than when he arrived. To understand it, it's essential to grasp that the NHS is experiencing the tightest financial squeeze in its history: its budget may be protected, but the rise is planned to be 0.1% a year until 2015. Like other western countries, Britain is experiencing a rise in the number and proportion of older people, and is struggling to contain the health costs that follow.
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There's an interesting YouGov poll in today's Times (£). We know what most voters think of Europe. They want it changed back to something more like a free trade area. We know what voters think of a referendum. They want to have one. But do voters think the politicians are genuine about the European and referenda policies that they hold? YouGov asked voters whether they thought politicians were holding their European policy positions because "they feel strongly about the issue" or "mainly because they are making a tactical calculation about what to say". The results are telling...
By Peter Hoskin
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Back in the early days of this Government, there was an easy consensus, among many commentators and politicians, about David Cameron's chances in 2015. They would rise or fall, it went, on the strength of the economy. If the Coalition had delivered us from downturn, the Tory part of it would be rather difficult to defeat. If not, then even the Sons of Brown might be given another chance.
That consensus has grown mushier and started to separate since then. This is partially because George Osborne’s economic plan has itself become less distinct, with many of its provisions pushed into the fog of the next Parliament. But it’s also because other arguments have emerged. There are those who say that, even if the economy hasn’t recovered, the Tories will be able to pitch for the don’t-rock-the-boat vote. Some say that, even if the economy has recovered, the next election will be more about living standards. And then still others talk about Europe and Ukip and constituency borders.
Lewis Sidnick will be providing support to ConservativeHome and ConservativeIntelligence as a Contributing Editor. Lewis is a communications professional with over 15 years experience in the private sector and extensive political experience, and has also worked for the Conservative Party in Westminster and in Brussels.
Parliament means Party, and Party means Whips. In other words, MPs must always form themselves into political parties, which in turn will require whipping, if the executive is to work in our system of Parliamentary government. It follows that Prime Ministers have both a selfless and a selfish reason for taking special care of their whips. If they don't, coherent government becomes impossible (the selfless reason) and their own position becomes endangered (the selfish one). And since it has never been harder to be a Whip - given the transformation of MPs into constituency champions, and their consequent rebelliousness - David Cameron must zealously care for their condition and morale.
The Prime Minister's EU referendum bill gambit was rushed out to quell the threat of a large number of Conservative MPs voting for John Baron's amendment to the Queen's Speech. Over 100 did - so the manoevre failed. That's roughly half of all Tory backbenchers. Blame must therefore lie either with the Whips, for failing to minimise the rebellion, or with Cameron himself, for failing to tell them to do so. The guidance consistent with both minimising the rebellion and good party management would have been to offer one of those free votes that aren't really free votes at all. Both Ministers and backbenchers would have been encouraged by the Whips to abstain, to drive down the number of Tory MPs supporting the Baron amendment.
By Mark Wallace
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Traditionally, the debate over fuel prices has split three ways. There are the Brownites and Greens who like high fuel costs - either because it stuffs the Treasury's coffers or because it supposedly deters motorists from driving (it doesn't, of course, it simply impoverishes people who have no choice but to drive for work or because they live outside the cities).
Then there are those who think high prices at the pumps are the work of greedy oil companies squeezing drivers for everything they can get away with.
Thirdly, there are the tax-cutters who point out that the majority of the fuel price is tax, and want the state to stop ripping motorists off.
The first point of view is unfair and economically damaging. We need people to be able to commute and lorries to be able to deliver goods to shops and raw materials to factories. In quality of life terms, it is wrong to punish people for using their cars to travel to see their families, go on holiday or just enjoy the many sights and attractions Britain has to offer. High fuel prices do us harm as a nation.
That leaves us with the two campaigns against high prices. Despite being traditionally divided between those who hate big government and those who hate big oil, there are signs that both groups are right.