George Kerevan: ‘Scottish’ voters who hold the balance of power
MANY of Corby’s population consider themselves Scots and now they are poised to determine David Cameron’s future.
If there is anywhere on the planet that qualifies as a genuine Scottish colony it is the town of Corby (pop. 61,000), which nestles in the very heart of rural England, a mere 90 miles north of London. Sometime in the next few months, probably 15 November, Corby is destined to alter the face of British politics.
In 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, a steel works was built near the then village of Corby, in leafiest Northamptonshire. To construct and operate the new plant came an influx of economic migrants – from the West of Scotland. Somehow, Corby seemed to suit the newcomers and they put down roots. Though the main steel works closed 30 years ago, a fifth of the town still claim Scottish birth.
Walk into a Corby pub of an evening and you’ll hear Glaswegian spoken and lager (not bitter) being ordered at the bar. Many a local tear was shed over the recent travails of Rangers – Corby boasts the largest Rangers supporters’ club outside of Scotland and Northern Ireland. On Sundays, Corby’s expat Scots have a choice of two Church of Scotland places of worship, St Andrews in Occupation Road and St Ninians in Beanfield Avenue.
How then did the Corby constituency end up with a Tory MP, Louise Mensch? She took Corby from Labour’s Phil Hope in 2010, with a majority of 1,951. Controversially, Mrs Mensch has now decided to quit Westminster to move to New York – after only 25 months in the job. But Labour is well ahead in the UK polls, so expect them to hoover up the seat in any by-election.
Corby politics are on a perpetual seesaw because Labour-voting Corby town is part of the same constituency as Tory-voting, rural East Northamptonshire. The Labour vote (courtesy of those Scots expats) and Tory vote are about equal. This makes Corby a UK political barometer. The seat has gone to the party that forms the government at Westminster in every election since it was created in 1983. Hence the arrival of Mrs Mensch at the 2010 General Election.
Of course, by-elections are one-offs. But a Labour victory at Corby would represent more than just a mid-term cuffing for David Cameron – and an unnecessary one as the by-election is an own goal by Mrs Mensch. Corby will give Ed Miliband political momentum and a platform to castigate George Osborne’s failure to avert double-dip recession. The media will take a Labour victory as proof that Miliband could win an early General Election if the Coalition falls apart. It will bury any notion that Labour chose the wrong Miliband.
Where does that leave Cameron and Osborne? Note this week’s dire economic prognosis from the Bank of England – Japan-style stagnation in 2012. Reading between the lines, Mervyn King, the Bank’s Governor, is putting distance between himself and Chancellor Osborne’s failed austerity programme. Even Thatcherite diehards like John Redwood are calling for “a tax-based stimulus”.
The Cameron-Osborne duo has shown little consistency. Remember NHS reform? So expect an economic U-turn. Losing Corby plus rocketing unemployment after Christmas will force Osborne to announce “temporary” growth measures in his March Budget. Labour will shout: “Too late!” The Tory right will shout: “Betrayed!” The end-game for this Government will have begun.
Corby is also bad news for Nick Clegg. This week, in response to Cameron’s scrapping of Lords reform, Clegg announced the Lib Dems will sabotage Tory plans to alter parliamentary boundaries. Clegg is desperate to throw his angry backbenchers a political bone.
However, this shows how delusional the Lib Dems have become. Boundary reform is not a matter that will influence Corby’s voters, especially the 14 per cent who voted Lib Dem in 2010. Expect them to switch to Labour. After all, what platform will Clegg fight the Corby by-election on? More austerity? Less austerity? Lords reform?
The Corby contest is likely to be on 15 November, coinciding with by-elections already scheduled for Manchester Central and Cardiff South, both safe Labour seats. A Lib Dem meltdown in all three seats – one in the North of England, one in rural England, and one in Wales – will read the last rites for the coalition and for Clegg’s leadership.
The one politician who must be enjoying the Corby situation is the Mayor of London. Boris Johnson was quick to reject a call for him to stand in the by-election. That means nothing. Boris knows the Tories will lose. Instead, and more significant, his mayorship has accepted an invitation to address the 1922 Committee of Tory backbench MPs next month – the very backbenchers whose successful rebellion killed off Lords reform. Boris will talk to them about everything except replacing David Cameron, but everyone knows the true agenda.
Is there any comfort for the Tories in Corby? Louise Mensch had a smaller majority than the Conservatives were due in 2010 because of the way she had been parachuted into the constituency. Corby’s expat Scots are not enough to guarantee a Labour victory. But then UKIP did not stand at the general election, and one can see then taking perhaps seven percentage points. Other Tories will simply stay at home.
Finally, Louise Mensch’s abrupt disappearance from the scene weighs heavily against David Cameron’s personal judgement. He alone was responsible for her selection. Yet a casual look at Mensch’s record shows her to be a political dilettante. A former supporter of Tony Blair, she was a Labour Party member in the late 1990s.
The Corby by-election will crystallise the UK political debate. A failing Coalition wedded to a failed economic strategy. A Prime Minister whose judgement is at fault. An opposition that has recovered its political mojo. And in the wings, an English Conservative majority edging toward the post-Cameron era – an era that will see the UK exit the European Union.
All that should make for some good chat come an evening in the pub, in Corby. And in a Scottish accent.
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