A housing boom could lose the Conservatives as many votes as it wins

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Luke Major

Britain’s rural landscape is under attack in the name of economic growth – despite David Cameron’s promise to lead the “greenest government ever.” The Prime Minister believes that the key to recovery is to build our way out of recession as was the case in the 1930s. But how much of our glorious greenery will we have sacrificed before we are satisfied with the rate of growth?

One significant cause of the threat to rural Britain is the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Put forward in March 2012, with a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable’ development, it makes it extremely difficult to carry out the mandate of preserving the rural nature of the area in which rurally based Conservative Councillors are elected.

Not only does the nature of the NPPF suggest worrying implications for our idyllic landscape, but it also makes our Council look ‘spineless and inept’ as we were referred to in my first parish meeting two days after I was elected. We can no longer take the rural vote for granted. In my by-election back in May 2013, nearly all of the spoiled ballots I was shown had some reference to the lack of a UKIP candidate standing. Another more recent by-election in my area saw an extremely narrow victory for a Conservative where a UKIP member had stood against him. In most areas of my district, we nearly always see a huge victory against the sum total of Labour, Lib Dem and the Green’s vote combined.

I would not dispute that the vast majority of Britain’s countryside (over 90%) remains untouched, but it is where the development is taking place that is harming the Tory vote. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), over one thousand hectares of green belt land (an area of open land around a settlement on which building is restricted) have been lost each year since 1997, covered in over 45,000 houses, spanning an area that roughly equates to a city the size of Bath. This is happening right on the doorstep of a great number of people who very often elect local Conservative Councillors for the purpose of preventing it. Is it any wonder that 13% of the almost exclusively Conservative Countryside Alliance now intends to vote UKIP in 2015?

The most frustrating aspect of the housing vs. environment issue is that plenty could be done to accommodate Britain’s growing population that would offend very few. Another CPRE report has identified derelict brownfield sites available for building approximately 1.5 million new homes. This would be on top of the 300,000 empty houses in the UK unoccupied for months, as well as the vast amount of land that our nation’s major house builders have permission to build on that could accommodate another 280,000 homes. Somewhat surprisingly, this report came after the last Labour government smashed targets to increase brownfield development by 60% before 2008, eight years ahead of schedule. Furthermore, back in 2011, local authorities identified an estimated 63,750ha of Brownfield land in England, up 2.6% from 62,130ha in previous year. Half of this land was derelict or vacant, with the other half in use, but with potential for redevelopment.

Clearly then there is a case for more ambitious targets in regions across the UK which could be encouraged through corporation tax relief for housing developers. The Conservative Party could even re-consider the Lib-Dems controversial Land Tax which would deter Greenfield development. Many commentators have pointed out that one of the main barriers to brownfield development is the uncertainties around cost, particularly during negotiations surrounding the clean-up operations of the areas on which they are to build, so the government U-turn to abolish Land Remediation Relief is welcome.

Eric Pickles’ recent announcement to grant more power to local councils could not have come soon enough. By making it more difficult to build on green belts, developers will naturally gravitate towards brownfield growth and focus on smaller urban properties that are more realistically priced for the people who need housing most.

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Britain cannot afford to abandon Trident

Louis Reynolds

Danny Alexander, discussing his recent policy review of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, sought to highlight the need to ‘move on from the Cold War postures of the past’; unfortunately, it seems that the senior Liberal Democrat apparatchik is forgetting the lessons of history. Mr. Alexander’s recent foray into the perennial nuclear weapons debate suggests that his party’s proposals can only be the product either of ignorance or, as Liam Fox alleges, politicking of the worst sort; that which compromises the long-term interests of the state. Certainly, they are not based on a holistic, historically-minded or even realistic assessment.

The nature of state on state conflict is that it is often unpredictable. Major wars can and have in the past come about due to, in various assortments and to varying degrees, diplomatic misunderstanding, mismanaged gun-boat diplomacy, foolish posturing, poor leadership, and a myriad of other factors. As the International Relations scholar Christopher Coker recently pointed out in a sober lecture on the possibility of a major conflict involving China in the twenty-first century, previous conflicts have come about with very little warning. Even the argument commonly made today, that our intermeshed global economic system would prevent state conflict from taking place, has historical precedence. The same arguments were made concerning the supposed peace-keeping effect of the gold standard and the international credit system in 1913.

When one makes the judgement, as Mr. Alexander has done, that Britain must reduce its nuclear deterrent’s effectiveness in order to save a few million pounds over a decade - 0.17% of the overall budget to be precise - one puts a low price on national defence indeed.

Simultaneously, one puts a huge amount of faith into the ability of politicians to make accurate, long-term calculations regarding future needs. Danny Alexander’s vision of Britain’s nuclear deterrent is fundamentally based, and can only be based, on his long-term vision of a world in which inter-state conflict will not take place. To confidently assert that major interstate conflict - of the kind relatively historically common up to this point - is no longer a threat, one must not merely be assured of the inherent goodness of modern states and the unprofitable nature of modern war. One must also be assured that states always make the most logical decision, always act in the most intelligent manner and always function as a comprehensible, cohesive whole. This is folly.

The Liberal Democrat’s half-baked idea that there should be a ‘surge’ capacity betrays their awareness of their own dangerous optimism and highlights their lack of serious strategic consideration. A ‘surge capacity’ – as if such a thing were possible in the context of nuclear weapons – is exposed as lunacy given a moment’s thought. What might be the effect, I wonder, on an already tense international political landscape, if the United Kingdom were to decide things had become dire enough to initiate a nuclear weapons surge? I would argue that attaching such a function to our nuclear weapons policy might be more than counterproductive.

The Liberal Democrats’ apparent awareness of the limitations of their proposals, combined with the utterly trivial amounts of money that could be saved by a reduction in the Vanguard fleet or a conversion to cruise-missile deployed weapons has lead some observers, including former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, to suggest that the their stance on this issue has more to do with internal politics than national defence. Whether or not this is the case, these musings on nuclear deterrence represent a familiar beast; the reasonably unrealistic and realistically unrealisable Liberal Democrat pet policy. Thankfully, such policies are generally harmless, though there is the potential that similar views, if they became Labour policy, might be very damaging to the United Kingdom’s interests indeed.

Britain isn’t engaged in the Cold War, a major world conflict is not imminent, and defence policies should not be maintained solely on the basis of possibilities; what really matters in international defence are probabilities. Yet it is not ahistorical to suggest that today’s political landscape is particularly uncertain, and as such inevitably to a degree unstable. Furthermore, the Trident programme is already the perfect size for the United Kingdom. A four submarine fleet allows for a constant deterrent, with sufficient training, refitting and rest capabilities, at the lowest possible cost. The UK Trident programme is powerful and limited in scope, it is effective and it represents ultimate security at low cost in an uncertain world; one that is not disarming, in nuclear or even general terms. The Liberal Democrats think that their nuclear policy would represent a step forwards for Britain; in reality, it would represent a foolish and unnecessary leap.


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Hello Grayness, My Old Friend…

Louis Reynolds

The recent rumours of Philip Hammond’s leadership ambitions have brought renewed (and perhaps unfamiliar) attention to the Secretary of State for Defence and his accomplishments since his appointment in October 2011. Yet Hammond’s tenure is a difficult one to judge, not least because of the fact that to him more than any other minister an enduring political truth applies:

Ministers are not omnipotent.

The final Minister of Defence and first Secretary of State for Defence, Peter Thorneycroft, not only played a major role in the most significant post-war reorganisation of Britain’s defence apparatus, but also contributed heavily to the development of the nuclear policy of the United Kingdom and NATO as a wider whole. Yet while Thorneycroft was an intelligent and ambitious man, his tenure in charge of British defence policy was shaped largely by forces outside of his control. Unforgiving economic necessity brought forth the Mountbatten-Thorneycroft reforms, seismic developments in the global political landscape drove the hasty advancement of British nuclear policy and acute political embarrassment forced through the establishment of the UK Polaris programme.

The myth of the Minister as the master of a department’s destiny obscures the more nuanced truth. Events, expediency, context and any number of other unseen forces conspire to steal direction away from Ministerial agency.  As was the case with the dramatic tenure of Peter Thorneycroft, so it is with the perhaps equally historical if less vivid stewardship of Philip Hammond.

Hammond was perhaps created for the role he currently performs; a fiscal golem to carry out the unforgiving cuts that political necessity has forced upon the Ministry of Defence. A competent, prudent administrator, it is fair to say that before Liam Fox’s fall from grace Hammond had been characterised by quiet efficiency. Andrew Grimson recently opined, with regards to the rumours of Hammond’s leadership ambitions, that it would be far easier to see Hammond as an able Chancellor than a Prime Minister. Certainly Hammond has not captured the hearts of the people, being apparently easily confused with Julian Assange in the eyes of the general public.

But what can be expected? Hammond’s job has been to downsize the MOD significantly, and the scale and grim nature of the task drains both popular-political capital and attention from other endeavours. Moreover Hammond, despite recent and much misunderstood protest, is guided (or dragged along) by the weighty hand of the Chancellor, and perhaps more importantly the internal dynamics of the Coalition. All the significant facets of recent military reform have been shaped almost wholly by fiscal requirement. Surely no one can seriously contend that Future Force 2020, under which not-yet-fully-existent TA soldiers will perform critical front-line duties to make up for a dearth of full-time professionals, does anything but critically undermine British capability to save a few billion in the short term?

If Hammond is necessarily more a Chief Financial Officer than a visionary Minister, he performs admirably in that function. His planned reforms to the defence procurement system are long-overdue and bold, while the cuts already undertaken have been managed well and applied intelligently. The foundations laid by Liam Fox can be regarded as critical to the overall process of bringing martial law to Britain’s belligerent defence ledgers, but it was Hammond who in 2012 presided over the first balanced MOD budget in a decade.

The context of Hammond’s career as Secretary of State for Defence has been the Government’s policy of drastic reductions in state spending, and the accompanying reality has been the ring-fencing of large sections of the overall budget, as well as the spirited defence of Welfare by the Liberal Democrats. Controversial cuts to Defence have been the result, and financial pressures have, in the eyes of the Coalition, trumped military requirements. In such a situation expediency requires a loyal, competent, financially astute and trustworthy manager to preside over a difficult department. All the better that such a man, with an awkward and potentially volatile brief, be rather grey.

In other Governments and in other decades, he might have been unsuitable. When Philip Hammond was first appointed as Secretary of State for Defence, Aaron Ellis criticised the decision in these pages and suggested a number of alternative candidates, many of whom would have represented excellent choices if the role had been that of a conventional Secretary of State rather than that which Hammond has fulfilled.

Hammond, more than the distracting and sometimes awkward Thorneycroft, was truly built to meet the needs of his government and of the realities that have confronted him. Hammond has so far played a very straight role from a position of much less power and influence than is often assumed. Serious rebellion against the further MOD cuts was never a realistic prospect, and Hammond took on the task specifically in order to enforce them. Whether the policies that he has so ably carried out are in themselves in the interests of the United Kingdom is a wholly different matter.

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Macmillan Lecture 2013: ‘Keep Calm and Carry On Reforming’

 MACMILLAN LECTURE 2013

Keep Calm and Carry On Reforming 

By Rt Hon Damian Green MP

The previous occasion I delivered the Macmillan Lecture was in 2005, just after a disastrous election result for the Conservative Party which saw us make little progress even though Tony Blair’s Government was visibly crumbling.

“Why aren’t we thinking what they’re thinking” was the rather gloomy title, prompted by the thought that the lack of progress made it much more difficult to obtain an overall majority in the subsequent election—a sadly prescient point. One thought I was keen to make then is equally true in the very different world of today; that if the Conservative Party does not like modern Britain it is unlikely that modern Britain will warm to the Conservative Party.

Of course there is much that needs to be changed, and much that is changing because of this Government. As I say in the title of this lecture, we must carry on reforming.  But we should not let the long recovery from recession, or individual horrible incidents such as the Woolwich killing, leave us gloomy or grumpy as a country. It is less than twelve months since the world admired the best Olympics of the modern age. They admired not just our national organisational skills but the character, warmth and openness of the British people. We should not just keep calm, we should cheer up.

I should move from the national to the party.  The same injunction applies.  

Perhaps this is the appropriate moment to fulfil the duty of all who deliver this lecture to quote Harold Macmillan; “It is the duty of Her Majesty’s Government neither to flap nor to falter.” Admirable advice which is both timeless and timely.  For centre-right politicians there are significant reasons to be both calm and cheerful , the most notable of which is the public’s reaction to the financial crisis and subsequent recession. It was the fond hope of those on the left, perhaps particularly those who grew up at the feet of Marxist philosophers, that this would be seen as a crisis of capitalism. The people would throw off the shackles of false consciousness and realise that free markets had failed, and that state spending, borrowing and control was the route out of recession.

Fortunately the British people have more sense than that, and tend to prefer the analysis that state spending and borrowing was precisely the route into recession. There is no spin in this analysis. Successive poll findings have shown  that even when Labour is enjoying a significant lead the Conservative team is markedly ahead on managing the economy. This is true even over the past few weeks, where calmness has not been the prevailing emotion.

The most recent Ipsos Mori poll showed a 14 percent lead for David Cameron on managing the economy. Truly, if it still is the economy, stupid, that sets the political tone we are winning the most important argument.  British Keynesianism failed in the 1970s, and enough people know that to ensure that its modern enthusiasts have little credibility. The world has not gone left since the crisis. Where right wing Governments have been ejected, as in France, the left-wing alternative is already in trouble. The economic facts of life are still Tory.

So keep calm. But also carry on reforming, and more particularly carry on reforming in a Tory way. There is gathering strength to the argument that the reforms we are seeing to, for example, immigration, welfare and education address exactly the issues that people want Government to concentrate on.

These key reforms have three significant features. The first is that they are as important to the success of the Government as the central economic policy. The second is that all of them are dependent on Conservative ideas and energy to drive them through. The third is that they are precisely on the Common Ground originally identified by Keith Joseph as the proper target for successful Government, rather than the centre ground.

So as well as winning the central economic argument we are reforming in the areas where the country needs changing, and we are doing so in a Conservative direction. This message cannot be sent too often or too loudly, particularly to traditional Conservative supporters. They want lower immigration, an end to abuse of the welfare state, and higher standards in schools. Conservative Ministers, drawing on Conservative principles and our Manifesto promises, are delivering this.  

On immigration, the latest figures show that net migration is down by more than a third since June 2010, and is now at its lowest level for a decade. At the same time as seeing this dramatic decline in overall numbers, which is the main requirement, we have continued to support economic growth by welcoming the brightest and best to the UK. Higher numbers of skilled worker visas were issued over the last year, as were university student visas. So we have lower immigration, and more selective immigration: both good Conservative policies.

On welfare, we have introduced the biggest welfare to work programme the UK has ever seen to get people back to work.  We also believe it must always pay to work – which is why we have capped benefits so that no one can get more on benefits than the average person earns in work. We want to help people escape poverty, not trap them in it. This reform is squarely in the tradition of  which Harold Macmillan would have approved.

The same is true with our education policy. We are making sure that every parent has the choice of a good local state school for their child, teachers have the powers they need to keep discipline in the classroom and the exam system is rigorous, respected and on a par with the world’s best.

We have a programme to improve the quality of teaching, including scholarships to attract the best graduates, higher literacy and numeracy requirements for trainee teachers and a network of ‘Teaching Schools’ across the country.  79 Free Schools and more than 2,000 new Academies have been delivered already. Many of them are in areas where most people have not been able, up to now, to gain access to an excellent education for their children. We are restoring discipline to the classroom with new search powers for teachers, an end to the ‘no-touch’ rule, and higher fines for truancy.

All of these essential reforms have been delivered by Conservatives working in a Coalition Government.

Which brings me to a theme which is particularly important for the Tory Reform Group, and all moderate Conservatives.  There may be areas of policy where we agree with Liberal Democrats, but we are not the same.  We believe in change and modernisation , and we recognise that what modernisation means changes over time, but we are first of all Conservatives. We have principles which are not shared even by the most orange of the Orange Bookers. We also do not regard ourselves in any way morally deficient compared to Liberal Democrats.

I get on very well with many of my LibDem Ministerial colleagues, but I am entitled to challenge their thesis that this Government can only be kept compassionate by their presence. There is a long and honourable tradition of decent Conservatives who want to help those who need help, and Macmillan himself was of course a prime example at all stages of his political career.

Macmillan  was alive to the difference. As he put it; “As usual the Liberals offer a mixture of sound and original ideas. Unfortunately none of the sound ideas is original and none of the original ideas is sound.”  We do have practical differences, as I discovered on a regular basis when I was Immigration Minister.

There are similar debates about key issues such as childcare. All of these debates can be, and are, resolved within Government, as they would be whether it was a Coalition or a one-party administration. But they illustrate that the moderate Conservative tradition is a vital part of any Conservative mix, and is distinctive from the instincts and habits that the LibDems bring to politics.

This distinction is key for those who worry that in the Coalition the tail is wagging the dog. We are reforming and we are reforming in a Conservative direction. Every Conservative policy is about promoting opportunity and social mobility.  We know that  making Britain succeed globally and allowing people to achieve their aspirations are the two keys to a successful society. Economic growth and individual growth need to go hand in hand. This is the basis for economic and social policy under this Government and I cannot understand why any Conservative, whichever tradition they adhere to, would object in principle to this approach.

There will always be disagreements about tactics and day-to-day priorities but these must not be allowed to divide the right, when the only beneficiaries will be the left. All  of us who campaigned so hard and so successfully to preserve a first-past-the-post electoral system must accept the consequences. Under first-past-the post a serious party that aspires to Government has to be a broad coalition.  This in turn requires a degree of self-discipline and capacity to compromise. If we Conservatives forget that, our opponents will be the beneficiaries.

This means that the tone of the discourse between Conservatives is important. If we sound as though we dislike each other, others will draw the obvious conclusion. I love Twitter, but its general tone should not be a guide to how Conservatives address each other. Disagreement on an issue, however emotive, does not mean treachery, or not being a proper Conservative. Politics is a team game, and mutual loyalty is vital for a successful team.

The biggest and longest-running cause of Conservative discord is Europe. Every Conservative should have a high regard for the lessons of history, and the party’s history on this issue since the 1990s is terrible. The effect of this has been, ironically and yet predictably, that Britain’s fate in Europe has been in the hands of those who have no sympathy at all for the Eurosceptic viewpoint. Surely we are all able to learn this lesson of history and not repeat it.

I am not just lecturing others. We must all learn lessons. For years pro-Europeans opposed the idea of a referendum. But the strategy of negotiating a new settlement, and then putting that to British people, is clearly the right one for current times. Most British people want it to happen. So much has changed since the 1975 vote that it is time to put the argument again. I hope and expect that the outcome of this process will be to renegotiate, reform, and revalidate Britain’s place in Europe. The Prime Minister has made clear that this plan will be central to Conservative policy up to and beyond the next election. It is time for the whole party to get behind it. And it is possible for those who hold the whole range of views on Europe to do so.

For those of us sympathetic to the European argument this is an opportunity to make our case, and the Prime Minister’s case, that a properly reformed EU will be hugely to Britain’s advantage. For too long only a few lonely voices in the Conservative Party have made the case that we are better off in. Those of us who hold that view cannot wait for the few weeks before a Referendum to argue our corner.  There is a hard-headed Conservative case for Britain’s membership of the EU, for all its imperfections, and it needs to be heard.

The core of the argument is economic. All sectors of industry agree that we are better off in. Let’s start with manufacturing. Five out of every six cars made in this country are exported, and 700,000 jobs depend on the industry.  How many of those firms would invest long-term in Britain outside the EU? No wonder Ford’s European Chief Executive, Stephen Oddell, has said that “Leaving a trading partner where 50% of your exports go… would be devastating for the UK economy.”  

Then there is the City, often seen as the part of the economy most hampered by EU rules. Goldman Sachs are unlikely to be sentimental about the economic effects of leaving, and they have concluded that departure would be a loss/loss scenario, in which the loss would be greater for the UK than the EU.  In particular they argue that “The UK’s ability to conduct business in financial services across the European Union is likely to be severely compromised by a departure from the EU.”

Then there is the argument that we should concentrate on the fast-growing economies in Asia and South America rather than sclerotic old Europe.  I have never understood how you make it easier to export to China by making it more difficult to export to Germany, and indeed the German example is surely one to follow. Last year Germany exported $804bn worth of goods to Europe, and another $519bn to the rest of the world. They are complementary markets, not alternatives.

Finally there is the argument that our businesses have to obey all these petty rules that hinder them. Does anyone imagine that the rules would be less onerous, or indeed less of a hindrance to British business, if they were made without any input from Britain? Since Britain will need to trade with Europe, we would be putting an added burden on our business, not removing one. And we would have to pay a large fee for access to the Single Market, as Norway does. The idea that we can remove all the irritations, but retain all the benefits, is not worthy even of the saloon bar.

Of course there is need for reform, not just for Britain’s sake but for Europe’s. We need a Transatlantic Free Trade deal. We need a single market in a number of new areas, including digital services. Above all, we need a reform deal which will deliver benefits to every country in the EU, so that others will be as keen as we are on reform.  This will show how beneficial it can be when Britain plays a leading role in Europe.

This European reform will be consistent with all the other hard-headed, unsentimental, pragmatic, Conservative reforms which the Government has embarked on. It will fit in with a wider modernising agenda which is nothing to do with party image and everything to do with making Britain (and Europe) fit to compete in the modern world. All these reforms, taken together, will change Britain for the better. So the job of all Conservatives at this point is neither to flap nor falter, but to get on with the job of persuading people that Conservative principles in action give all British people the chance to succeed. We should be proud of our record so far, and we know there is much more to come. We have an important job to do. We should devote all our energy and time to doing it. 

Only by calming down shall EU rebels get what they want, or have any colleagues left to share it

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Nik Darlington 9.54am

Yesterday on these pages, Giles questioned whether the Tory party truly wants to resist the UKIP surge, or whether the Tory party in fact embraced it. This morning on ConHome, Paul Goodman questions whether Tory MPs even want to win the next election.

For some “lunatics”, to paraphrase Mr Soames commenting yesterday, this is not wide of the mark. The MP for Ketting, Philip Hollobone (majority 9,094), is insisting on parliamentary time to debate a referendum bill and "if it ends the coalition, so be it".

That would, in all likelihood, end the Tory party’s tenure in office. It would not, in all likelihood, end Mr Hollobone’s tenure in the House of Commons.

There are however many hard-working, bright colleagues who would be sacrificed at the alter of Mr Hollobone’s (and others’) capricious whim.

To recap, John Baron (Basildon & Billericay: majority 12,398) posited a motion criticising the Queen’s Speech for not including an EU Referendum Bill. Coalition with the Liberal Democrats precludes this, however David Cameron has since announced the independent publication of a draft bill that is presumed will be taken on by the first name out of the hat for private members bills.

Mr Baron and supporters - including Peter Bone (Wellingborough: majority 11,787) and the reinstated Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire: majority 15,152) - have extracted this significant concession. Yet they press on. And on. Today’s Times (£) cartoon puts this best.

Has the Prime Minister handled this badly? Of course he has. Should a doomed stand be made against the muddled, undemocratic ranks of the Labour party, the Lib Dems, Greens and the rest? Yes, it should.

Europe is a salient issue for voters and the British people deserve a say on EU membership, pending the Prime Minister’s negotiations. For what it is worth, looking at the status quo, on balance I would vote to stay in; but it would be a close call.

It would not take much to convince me otherwise. The ‘out’ lobby has a war chest of momentum, funding and evidence. The ‘in’ lobby does not. In fact, I fear supporters of EU membership have at worst largely forgotten why they support it, and at best are relying on out-dated evidence.

Nevertheless, Europe is not the most salient issue for voters. It does not even come close. The crucial consideration in this sordid episode is that the Conservative party is being poisoned by myopia, desperation, and fears the wrong enemy.

Lance the boil. Have the debate about a referendum bill. Expose opposing parties. Be done with it.

Demonstrate to voters what this Conservative-led Government has achieved in the realms of welfare reform, schools and immigration; ram home the paucity of Labour’s alternative; press on with vital reforms to healthcare; and continue the hard but necessary work of rebuilding Britain’s economy.

Only by doing so shall the Conservative party have a hope of winning in 2015. Only be doing so shall there be a chance for an EU referendum. And only by doing so shall those MPs in safe seats who yearn for that referendum, have any colleagues left to ensure it.

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Some lessons from Eastleigh for the Tory party

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Giles Marshall 7.37am

That the Liberal Democrats won at all is a minor triumph and let no-one tell you otherwise.

This is a party mired in a truly demeaning scandal, whose media operation looked utterly out of shape and whose leader was subject to the sort of scrutiny usually reserved for pariahs and criminals.

Add to this the fact that Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems enjoy the support of not a single major media outlet, but can count on the active hostility of all of them, and this really does start to look like an extraordinary triumph.

No leader since John Major has received quite such a pasting from the right-wing press, and even then some papers maintained a veneer of regard for the party Major was leading.

No such exceptionalism exists for Nick Clegg. Any triumph he gains, any achievement he chalks up, is and always shall be done in the face of an extraordinary hostility from the media.

So how did the Liberal Democrats win in Eastleigh?  I can offer two reasons.  Number one – their organisation on the ground is excellent.  They have a large number of councillors and activists in Eastleigh and they used feet on the ground to considerable effect.  In the age of big media and social network politics, localism still counts and a motivated ground force can still make the difference.  This is what can rescue the Lib Dems from oblivion in any general election.

Number two – they faced the split opposition of the right, and herein lies a serious problem for the Tories. Eastleigh was a Conservative seat not so very long ago, held by a middle-ground Tory of cautiously pro-European opinions who tragically was subject to personal demons.

In this by-election, conscious of the UKIP threat, the local party fielded Maria Hutchings, who has forthright views on immigration, is a determined Eurosceptic and would have been no Cameron patsy if elected to Parliament. She is the dream candidate for the Tory right.

And she lost. Not marginally. She lost substantially, coming in third behind the party whose image she tried to emulate and whose implicit endorsement she tried to achieve.  

The Tory party will try to garner all sorts of lessons from this defeat and most of them will be wrong. The one thing that should stand out is the reality that the right-wing vote in this country is too small to permit of two competing parties. It is arguably too small to permit of even one successful party.

The Tory party’s split identity is becoming ever more harmful, but that is nothing to the rump it will become if the lesson drawn from Eastleigh is voters desire a more unvarnished brand of Tory rightism.

It seems the party will never be right-wing and Eurosceptic enough to appease UKIP supporters without alienating the crucial centrist vote that all parties need to sustain themselves in government. This is a simple matter of electoral arithmetic.

As for UKIP, they should enjoy their triumph. They didn’t win, but they scored their best by-election result to date.

However, it isn’t quite as great a triumph as Nigel Farage is trumpeting. At a time when both governing parties are massively unpopular, this party of protest failed to wrest a seat from them.

In their heyday, the Social Democratic Party – a party of protest that sought to extract voters from the Labour Party in much the same way as UKIP does from the Tories – managed to pull off extraordinary by-election victories in both Conservative and Labour seats. They did it when the governing Tories were pursuing unpopular economic measures. And they never managed to translate their extraordinary by-election success into general election success, descending into third party misery each time.  

UKIP’s achievement is weaker than the old SDP’s. If Farage’s lot can’t win a seat like Eastleigh in a by-election, with protest votes aplenty, then they shan’t win anything in a general election.

Eastleigh has produced a victor, whatever the gloom that the national pundits may be pronouncing for all parties. That victor, to the dismay of Conservatives, is their coalition partner. It will keep the coalition going, but it offers no hope to the dominant party.

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If you’re in Eastleigh and you’re reading this, do something worthwhile and VOTE HUTCHINGS today

Craig Barrett 11.02am

Another Thursday, another by-election. Following the resignation in disgrace of Chris Huhne, voters are today going to the polls in a constituency that has been a tightly fought battleground between the Tories and the Lib Dems since the previous by-election, in 1994. A Lib Dem majority of fewer than 4,000 votes belies a seat where the Lib Dems have a very active party machine and hold all of the local council seats.

Needless to say, all parties in contention have thrown everything at it.  UKIP’s sole spokesman, Nigel Farage, declined to stand again in the seat which he fought in 1994, presumably thinking that he couldn’t win and to fail to win once again would be a humiliation too far.

The Labour party has John O’Farrell, former joke-writer for Gordon Brown, who has been roundly criticised for his comments lamenting the fact that the IRA failed to murder Lady Thatcher in Brighton in 1984.

The Lib Dems have selected a local councillor, Mike Thornton, who, in best Liberal Democrat tradition, has voted in favour of housing developments which his leaflets suggests he opposes.

Our candidate, Maria Hutchings, is a working mother with four kids, a genuine local campaigner whose campaign has been masterminded by the energetic, relentless, indomitable Michael Fabricant, whose endless stream of tweeted photographs shows the entire Parliamentary party (and their cousins and their aunts, not to mention their dogs) has visited the constituency to ensure that Maria’s message of being a local campaigner who can be trusted has been strongly made to every voter. I haven’t been down myself but my reading of her message is that she has sound Conservative views and will be a hard-worker for her constituents. The race appears to be too close to call.

My suspicion is that the biggest winner out of all of this will be SouthWest Trains.  Nevertheless, if you’re in Eastleigh and you are reading this, do something worthwhile today: VOTE HUTCHINGS.

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We should all be unsettled by the reaction towards opponents of equal marriage

Nik Darlington 10.44am

Looking down the voting list from last night prompts some sadness. They are not what Downing Street might describe as ‘the usual suspects’. Neither are they the types deserving of the subsequent vitriol.

What is done, is done. There is a majority for this in the country; there is a majority for this in Parliament. To make this a partisan issue is as disappointing as it is dull. Move on.

Enough has been said on both sides of the debate about rights and wrongs. It shall do nobody any good to dredge over what are now old coals.

Instead, there are some brief observations to make about the reporting of last night’s historic parliamentary vote.

First of all, the nature of the ‘rebellion’. Broadcasters, broadsheets and tabloids are (unsurprisingly) focusing on the scale of Tory dissent, yet giving scant regard to the 22 Labour MPs who voted against, the 16 Labour MPs who abstained, the 4 Liberal Democrat MPs who voted against, and the 7 Liberal Democrats who abstained. Parliament’s vote as a whole reflects most national polling on the issue.

Though wrong to assume unthinkingly, it may well turn out to be the case that the Conservative party emerges from this difficult (and arguably ill-timed) culture war worse than it entered. So be it, one could say, for ultimately it was the right thing to do.

Nevertheless, should the Conservative party be scarred by this episode, that shall in no small part be thanks to the simultaneously superficial and spasmodic manner of its communication by the press.

Take various references across television and print to Tory MPs’ “failure” to back same-sex marriage. How is it itself a failure? I do not count myself among their number, but the many opponents of same-sex marriage (for whatever reason), not to mention opponents of this particular piece of legislation, would consider their vote a “success” rather than a “failure”.

Broadcasters - bound to impartiality by statute - ought to feel especially guilty about making such a partial editorial judgement. Indeed report that a multitude of MPs from all sides of the House of Commons “failed” to stop the Bill’s progression. That is a statement of pure and simple fact.

Yet do not presume yourself the arbiter of right or wrong. This has been a profoundly difficult situation for many people with variously strong religious, social and cultural beliefs. Nor presume to judge that those people have “failed”, have come up short, are somehow not quite as morally or intellectually vigorous as those in favour.

Time advances, opinions change, but not all at once. That is life; and there is no failure in that.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington