The news this morning that the Conservatives intend to hold an open primary in Rochester and Strood shows how serious the party is about winning the by election triggered by Mark Reckless's resignation. Primaries are expensive to organise - particularly an open primary in which any registered voter in the constituency can participate - but the Prime Minister and his advisors believe that selecting a "people's candidate" will be a good way of countering Ukip's populist rhetoric and is their best hope of victory.
Most of the Tory MPs I spoke to at conference said the Rochester by-election is a perfect opportunity to stop Ukip in its tracks. They are resigned to losing to Douglas Carswell in Clacton on October 9, but believe that if the party can win in Rochester that would discourage any other Conservative MPs from defecting. Nigel Farage admitted as much in the Independent: "I think that anyone considering making the leap will wait for the results of the by-elections before they decide to do so," he wrote.
There are a number of reasons to think Reckless will lose. For one thing, he's no Douglas Carswell. Carswell has been Clacton's MP since 2005 and has built up a large personal following in the constituency thanks to his energetic and innovative campaigning. Reckless, by contrast, has only represented Rochester since 2010. (To read more, click here.)
I initially thought Nigel Farage had made a mistake in unveiling Mark Reckless on the final day of his party conference. Wouldn’t it have been more disruptive to announce the news during the Conservative party conference?
But after spending the first half of the week with the Tories in Birmingham, I now think it was the right decision. It put the fear of God into the party faithful. The dominant topic of conversation at the bar of the Hyatt Regency was who would be next? My colleague Dan Hodges compared the atmosphere to the Antarctic research station in The Thing, the horror film in which an alien takes on human form before transforming into a giant insect. You could never be certain the Tory MP you were talking to wouldn’t suddenly tear off his mask to reveal a purple monster.
I’ve met Nigel Farage several times and enjoy his company a good deal, but it’s hard to dismiss the suspicion that this is what he got into politics for. Forget about securing Britain’s exit from the EU. After all, our best hope of doing that is to vote Conservative and get a referendum in 2017. What really excites him is messing with David Cameron’s head. Not because he hates him, but because it’s a way of forcing the Prime Minister to pay attention to him. He wants Cameron to regret not showing people like him more respect. To borrow another film metaphor, he’s like the villain in The Incredibles who devotes his life to destroying his hero after being rejected by him as a boy. Somewhere deep in Farage’s psyche is what Freud called a “narcissistic scar” – an irreparable blow to his self-esteem that has left him with an unquenchable rage. He’s not in politics to create anything, but to bring down Mr Incredible. (To read more, click here.)
Delegates at the Tory Party Conference woke up this morning to some depressing headlines, not least this one in the Telegraph: "Labour will win 'comfortable' majority at general election, says Lord Ashcroft."
Nevertheless, I think there are several reasons why the Conservatives should not be too downbeat.
1. The Labour Party, as led by Ed Miliband, isn't exactly a formidable fighting force. As the Prime Minister said in his speech to ConservativeHome last night: "If we can't defeat this shower of an opposition we don't deserve to be in politics." (To read more, click here.)
For veteran Ed Miliband watchers like me, it came as no surprise to learn that he'd forgotten the two most crucial passages in the biggest speech of his career. Throughout his time as Leader of the Opposition, Miliband has been making headlines for doing weird and unexpected things. These aren't gaffes, exactly. They're closer to faux pas – doing something wrong as a result of not knowing the form. At some basic level, Miliband lacks an awareness of elementary social convention. During his leadership campaign, his aides contrasted him with his brother David by claiming that he "spoke human". But he doesn't, not really. He's like a political robot from the future who does a good impression of being human, but who occasionally gives himself away by getting things slightly wrong. He hasn't been properly de-bugged. He's more like the T-800 model cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator than the shapeshifting T-1000 model played by Robert Patrick in Terminator 2.
Here are seven examples of Miliband's malfunctioning since becoming leader of the Labour Party (To read more, click here.)
Women spend 10 days a year in a grumpy mood according to the Daily Mail. The top triggers include being overweight, feeling undervalued, having a bad hair day, breaking a nail and the wrong time of the month.
The standard reaction to this among the men I know was to question the number of days. [Itals] More like 100, surely? [Itals] My reaction was slightly different. I’m not convinced there’s any such thing as a “grumpy day” for most women, any more than there is a “happy day”. Rather, all days contain peaks and troughs and the variation isn’t between good days and bad days so much as days on which their mood swings are violent and frequent and days on which they’re relatively stable.
Okay, okay, I’m being provocative. Trolling politically correct feminists is such easy sport it’s difficult to resist, but the truth is I recognized more of myself in this Daily Mail article than my wife. (To read more, click here.)
Ed Miliband's attempt to change the subject today by unveiling a mansion tax on properties worth more than £2m is unlikely to work because it raises too many awkward questions about the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK. In no particular order, these questions are:
1) Is Ed Miliband proposing to impose a mansion tax on properties in Scotland as well as the rest of the UK? If so, how does that square with granting Scotland more fiscal autonomy in the new Devo Max arrangements that Miliband is keen to put in place as soon as possible?
2) It seems likely that, post-Devo Max, a British government won't be able to impose a mansion tax in Scotland. So does Labour's costing of its increased spending on the NHS exclude any revenue raised by the mansion tax in Scotland? If not why not? (To read more, click here.)
During that awful period when it looked as though "Yes" might win, a consensus emerged that David Cameron had made a tactical error in not including devo max on the ballot. Had Scotland voted for independence yesterday, that would have been Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution against the Prime Minister. However, given that Scotland has decided to remain part of the United Kingdom, that decision now looks like a gamble that paid off.
There are three reasons why making the referendum a simple, binary choice was a smart decision. (To read more, click here.)
It was just after the Tory Party Conference last year that I met Alex Salmond. Not alone, obviously, but as one of a group of about 25 people. The group contained quite a few dignitaries, some of them Scottish, so he gave us the full court press. Lunch at his official residence, preceded by a 45-minute reception. The First Minister was there for the duration, ladling out the charm like heather honey.
I’ve met a few senior politicians in my time, including the last three British Prime Ministers, and Salmond was easily the most impressive. It’s customary on these sorts of occasions for the politician to work the room, spending a few moments with each person. It’s a well-established routine – you’re introduced by an assistant, eye contact is established, your hand is shaken, you’re asked a few questions that are supposed to indicate that the politician knows exactly who you are (they’ve usually just been briefed by the intermediary), and they end by saying “Nice to see you” (never “Nice to meet you” in case you’ve met before). (To read more, click here.)
Oh dear. I think I may have inadvertently contributed to the dissolution of Great Britain. I’m not claiming sole responsibility. In due course, when the blame game begins, I’ll play second fiddle to the party leaders, Gordon Brown, Eddie Izzard and successive generations of carpet-bagging aristocrats. Nevertheless, when the rise and fall of the British Isles is written, I’ll be deserving of a minor footnote. I’m talking, of course, about the imminent cessation of Wales from the United Kingdom.
I say “imminent”, but it’s contingent upon a “Yes” vote in next week’s Scottish referendum which isn’t a foregone conclusion – not quite. But I don’t see how a referendum on the future of Wales can be avoided if the Scots secede, shortly followed by a Northern Irish referendum, a Cornish referendum, a Black Country referendum and a referendum on the Isle of Sheppey. Some people have speculated about an English referendum, but at this rate there won’t be anywhere left to secede from. On the contrary, we’ll be reduced to trawling the dregs of the former Soviet empire looking for impoverished countries willing to accept our generous welfare subsidies in return for adding their colours to our flag. Mind you, that might be dangerous given that Putin will have his nuclear submarines parked in the Clyde at that point. (To read more, click here.)
Frances O'Grady, the leader of the TUC, is right to be concerned that Britain is "becoming like Downton Abbey", something she flagged up in her speech to the TUC's annual congress this morning. That was certainly beginning to happen under the last government. But, thankfully, the Conservative-led coalition has done quite a lot to put that right.
There's no question that under Labour the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, partly because Labour was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich", to quote Peter Mandelson. The UK's Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, increased from 0.33 in 1996-97 to 0.36 in 2008-09. But is O'Grady right to claim "the gap has got worse" in the past four years? (To read more, click here.)