The only Tory more Tiggerish than Michael Fabricant is the party chairman Grant Shapps, and perhaps that’s why the two work so well together on campaigns. But even the jovial Conservative vice chairman is exhausted after the full-throttle Eastleigh by-election. Fabricant was shouted at in the street by a voter who, thinking he was a Lib Dem, harangued him about Chris Huhne, and one voter placed notice on a wheelie bin telling campaigners to dump their leaflets there, not through the letterbox.
But in spite of that, from the glowing way he describes the campaign, you might be forgiven for thinking the Tories won it, or at least came second, not a dismal third behind UKIP. Merrily pouring tea in a noisy Commons tearoom, he jokes that the Conservatives were being polite to let the Lib Dems win. He is being serious in one sense – the Coalition may well have suffered more in the long-term from the Lib Dems losing the seat.
‘The Eastleigh campaign was a real full-blooded by-election campaign: not all of ours are. And what was particularly nice was the camaraderie of the parliamentary party. About 220 MPs actually came down to Eastleigh, some on numerous occasions. I would say that we were not necessarily so coalicious in the by-election. It wasn’t coalition, it was demolition.’
But the demolition gang, in spite of their best efforts, didn’t succeed in driving a wrecking ball through the Lib Dem campaign. Fabricant, though, was hopeful right up until the last minute that the Tories might yet succeed, although in the last week of campaigning, he saw a surge in support for UKIP.
So now he’s mulling what it was that deprived the Conservatives of their chance, though he is keen to insist that he would not have changed Maria Hutchings as candidate, even adding that he hopes she stands again in 2015. He also regrets the way the party latched on to comments made by Labour candidate John O’Farrell in his book Things Can Only Get Better. ‘I mean alright, I know it was a by-election,’ he says. ‘But the poor man, if you read the book it’s quite clear he doesn’t support terrorism, it’s quite clear he doesn’t wish Margaret Thatcher had died.’
There are a number of very clear lessons from Eastleigh that Fabricant wants his party to take on board. He tweeted his initial thoughts on the day the result was announced, which miffed party HQ, although he says there has been no comeback from those tweets. Now he expands those lessons for Coffee House readers.
The first is that Conservative voters are alienated, and do not understand why they should vote Tory.
‘I think the blue collar vote doesn’t understand the Conservative party and that’s why I feel that our message at times is muffled and isn’t clear. I mean Farage said in Eastleigh that they connected with the electorate and I don’t think we are connecting with the electorate at the moment.
‘A lot of the things that UKIP are talking about – immigration, creation of jobs and indeed Europe – they’re all things we’re doing anyway and this is what we should really be talking about in a much clearer way. I don’t think our language is right and we’re not connecting, as I said, with the electorate and we need to have a real hard think about the type of language we use.’
One thing that has been muffling the Conservative message recently is the furore in the party over gay marriage. Fabricant is a fervent supporter of the legislation. He has always been socially liberal: in fact, when he arrived in the Commons in 1992, having served as chairman of the Brighton Pavilion Conservative Association and worked as a radio journalist, he found many of his colleagues surprisingly out of touch. ‘The majority of them were living 50 years in the past!’ he exclaims. In fact, some of his beliefs were sufficiently at odds with the mainstream of the party when it came to social issues that he was approached in 1998 by Labour figures who wanted him to defect.
‘Someone quite important to me said to me, come on, you’re obviously New Labour. And I said, no, I’m New Conservative. And then that person said to me there isn’t such a thing, and I said, well, maybe there will be!’
He believes there is such a thing now, and gay marriage is one piece of evidence to supper the success of Cameron’s modernisation project. But he confesses that he was astonished by how much trouble it caused.
‘David Cameron and I rebelled against the majority of the party by voting for gay marriage. And I did it simply because I think it was the right thing to do. But I think what neither David Cameron, and certainly not I, thought was how something which was on a one-line whip anyway because all of these moral issues are on a one-line whip, could dominate the media, and whereas anyone who works in parliament knows that you can have eight pieces of legislation – probably more – going through the Commons and the Lords, the perception is the only thing they’re talking about and worrying about and taking action about is gay marriage and not the economy and jobs and everything else.
‘With hindsight, the timing might not have been great and there might have been alternative ways of doing it, but it was the right thing to do. Tony Blair gave the Prime Minister good advice when he said, look, get the difficult stuff over and done with in the first year. I think neither he nor anyone else recognised quite how difficult this fairly straightforward issue would be.’
The same sex marriage bill still has to complete several stages in the Commons before it even moves into the House of Lords, so there is still plenty of danger that it will muffle other issues. But Fabricant warns that the party needs to be careful that it doesn’t annoy its core vote again in the next two years, saying that ‘I think DC may have got the message that we need to be a little bit careful between now and the election about what legislation we do’. He also believes the party needs to ‘shout louder’, ‘have initiatives and time it right, but you know, Downing Street knows that and Downing Street is doing it to the best of their ability’.
The shouting louder from the party in the aftermath of the by-election has widely been interpreted as a ‘lurch to the right’, even though David Cameron clearly ruled one out. Fabricant doesn’t believe this would work in the party’s favour, either, and he believes the kites flown this week on the European Court of Human Rights, migrants’ benefits and NHS tourism aren’t so much a lurch to the right as an attempt by the party to communicate existing policies better. ‘In actual policy terms, it hasn’t moved at all,’ he argues. But it will be talking more and more about Europe, immigration and those other UKIP preoccupations that will deliver a Tory victory in 2015, he says. In fact, it might have delivered one in 2010, too:
‘Perhaps if we have discussed our policies on immigration and Europe a bit more in 2010, we might have won outright.’
Like many other MPs, the vice chairman believes the party needs to offer more than it already has on Europe. Though David Cameron’s referendum pledge was valuable, Fabricant believes Downing Street should seriously consider introducing legislation in this parliament to ensure that it can take place in the next, rather than simply making it a manifesto commitment. He says:
‘Now, as far as the legislation is concerned, there are two issues here, very clear issues to my mind. One issue is that people might not believe us if we promise we’re going to do it after the next election. However, if we have the legislation before the next election it forces Labour into deciding what they’re going to do an although it might sound like selfish politics it is an issue that if Labour were to say OK then we’ll vote for it too, it takes away a little bit of the demarcation between the Conservative party and the Labour party.
‘But as I say there’s a very real credibility issue which Number 10 is going to have to decide upon about whether we can be believed so that we will have that legislation and UKIP were very, very insistent in the Eastleigh by-election about. The ideal thing is that Labour does vote against it and then there is that demarcation. Then we can say we tried to bring it forward, there’s the Bill, this is something we were bringing forth in government, here’s what Labour did. It’s an important tactic that Downing Street has to think about and I know is thinking about.’
After leaving the Whips’ Office in September’s reshuffle, Fabricant caused waves, not just with his energetic tweeting (on the day of the cull itself – when he left voluntarily – he tweeted: ‘Fear and Loathing on the Terrace. Much tears and drowning of sorrows by the sacked. I’m ecstatic. Been kissed by 3 women (&1 man) MP.’), but with a discussion paper published in November called ‘The Pact?’. It said the Conservative party needed to take the UKIP threat seriously, and proposed a pact with Nigel Farage’s party. But though it was the pact – ruled out by Grant Shapps on Coffee House – that attracted the most attention, Fabricant’s intention was to push the party into viewing UKIP as a serious rival. If anyone was sceptical about that before the Eastleigh by-election, they will surely have changed their minds by now.
‘Really the purpose was to stop any complacency there might be about UKIP, and you know there has been a marked change of policy – partly due to the fact that it was happening anyway – if I helped speed it up just a tiny bit then I don’t regret producing it.’