Matthew d’Ancona: an article of two halves

by Stephen Tall on January 29, 2006

I usually have a lot of time for Matthew d’Ancona’s political columns in the Sunday Telegraph: may not always agree, but the points are pertinent, the style irresistible. All of which makes this week’s column the more bizarre.

Half of it is lazy, sloppy and cheap, the other half is the quality analysis I’ve come to expect; like two cars – a Robin Reliant and a Rolls Royce – grafted together by a dodgy dealer.

Last week, David Cameron warned his Shadow Cabinet colleagues not to be complacent about the Lib Dems’ present crisis, amid daily revelations that have given the third party a taste of what “Back to Basics” was like for the Conservatives (or, in the case of the party of beards, sandals and folk songs, “Back to Beatniks”).

Beatniks? You mean those 1950s’ American bohos who rejected middle-class values (yeah, that sounds so Lib Dem). Is that the best pun you could find, Matthew? Sad thing is, I bet you were really pleased when you thought of it too. And lest Matthew forgets, the ‘Back to Basics’ which inflicted real damage on the Tories was not the sad death of Stephen Milligan but being on the take from Mohammed al’Fayed, taking cash for questions, and selling arms illegally to Iraq.

It would take a heart of stone not to snigger at the sight of Britain’s most sanctimonious politicians making fools of themselves so soon after they mercilessly despatched Charles Kennedy for his own frailty.

Well, clearly I’m not cut out to be the Tin Man. Perhaps it’s why I’m not a hack-writer. ‘Cos I have a sneaking sympathy for Mark Oaten – publicly humiliated, his career over, his marriage in tatters – and certainly for Simon Hughes – forcibly outed by a latently homophobic media, glorying in its own brutish power. If the last week has done anything, it is to remind me and many other Lib Dems quite how deeply unpleasant so many Tories are in their treatment of others’ misfortunes.

And for the Conservatives, so used to the traffic heading in the opposite direction, the defection to the Tories last week of Adrian Graves, a former Lib Dem candidate, must have been especially

It was certainly sweet for the media whose narrative this ‘small earthquake in Chile’ it fitted. We’ve yet to see the defection of three Lib Dem MPs so well trailed by mischief-making Tory bloggers like Iain Dale, and obediently picked up by journalists who really ought to know better.

Yesterday, the Lib Dems announced the defection of former Tory MP, Sir Cyril Townsend. Let’s be honest: it was a bit cheeky. Sir Cyril joined the party last year; he has not been converted by the last few weeks’ shenanigans. But imagine if he were a former Lib Dem MP defecting to the Tories in exactly the same circumstances? I don’t think then the press would be quite so scrupulous in reporting the timescales. After all, Adrian Graves decided to leave the Lib Dems last year.

The Lib Dems will be disappointed with their showing in our ICM poll today: 18 per cent is alarming compared to the 22 per cent of the vote that Mr Kennedy achieved at the election.

Erm, you’re having a laugh here aren’t you, Matthew? 18% – I think most of us are pretty jubilant, as Conservative commentator Anthony Wells notes today. (You see, Matthew, it is possible to be a Tory and impartial.) I can’t help thinking that sentence was written before Matthew knew the poll result, and that the figure was dropped in later by a sub-editor.

It will appal the three remaining leadership candidates that, only three weeks after his resignation, 39 per cent of Lib Dems and 37 per cent of all voters already want [Charles Kennedy] back. It is a measure of the panic that has descended upon Lib Dems that less than half of them think that a new leader will improve the party’s prospects.

Try looking at it the other way round, Matthew: “majority of Lib Dem voters think new leader will improve party’s chances”. Just as accurate; just doesn’t fit your agenda. Given the press of the last few weeks, I suspect you’re actually surprised it’s not higher than 39%. I wonder what the equivalent figures would have been for IDS, when the Tories decapitated him? Not that different is my guess. Yet I think almost all Tories would recognise that Michael Howard’s succession gave the Tories more stability and brought greater electoral success. Forced changes of leader are rarely pain-free.

That said, the poll also shows that the public is not moved by the revelations about Mark Oaten’s relationship with a rent boy or Simon Hughes’s declaration that he is gay (or, at least, that he was at the time of writing – by the time you read this, he may be straight again).

A cheap, offensive and unworthy shot. It is incredible how few right-wing commentators – who are more than happy to platform their conversion to Cameron’s trendy modernity – are utterly unable to grasp the concept of bisexuality.

It was surely Mr Oaten’s great misfortune to have picked the only rent boy in Britain who was familiar with the Liberal Democrat front bench. (Rent boy: “I say, you’re that Mark Oaten, aren’t you?” Oaten: “No! No! I’m not!” Rent boy, in the manner of Uncle Monty: “Yes you are. Of course you are.”) You would have thought that one of the only advantages of being a Lib Dem politician was never being recognised. Not so, apparently.

Ha-ha! I see what you’ve done there, Matthew. How wry. Yes, you’ve passed your audition for The News Quiz with that inspired piece of observation satire.

And then, having so utterly jumped the shark of political commentary, he pulls it back. His last few sentences are bang-on-the-nose, and worth quoting in full (if only to demonstrate a blog can strive for balance where a columnist doesn’t even try):

One of the Tory Party’s great failures in 2005 was to win Lib Dem votes in seats where the Conservatives were second to Labour. In 2001, the Tories finished second to Labour in 308 seats.

Yet, last year, the swing in such Labour seats was away from the Conservatives (a mean fall of 0.1 per cent) and towards the Lib Dems (a mean increase of 4.7 per cent). In precisely the seats where the Tories needed to win over Lib Dem voters to topple a Labour MP, it was the Lib Dems who made advances.

It is hard to exaggerate the electoral importance of what may look like a technicality. In this context, the manual for New Labour is a Fabian paper by Liam Byrne, the health minister, published last September that caught Mr Blair’s eye. The core statistic presented by Mr Byrne was that the Tories are now in second place in no fewer than 88 of the 100 most marginal Labour seats. His conclusion – that Labour dare not lurch Leftwards – is all the more acute now that Mr Cameron is storming the centre-ground.

The Tory leader knows that he must win back the ABC1s – the white collar middle classes – who have deserted his party in droves. So no more “dog whistles” – nasty little coded messages – “core vote” politics, or skinhead Conservatism: such strategies have been tested to destruction. In the Seventies and Eighties, the Conservative lead among ABC1s was always above 30 per cent; now it is a mere 3 per cent.

The essence of the Cameron strategy is to make this section of the electorate – about 54 per cent of the population – feel comfortable once more about voting Tory, and to woo those of them who are tired of Labour, but have not found a stable home with the Lib Dems.