The poll by Lord Ashcroft that we report today is troubling for David Cameron, no matter how much Downing Street tries to play it down. More than one in three former Tory voters are planning not to vote for the party in 2015, which would make it difficult for Cameron to win an outright majority. So, where once the Tory leadership used to be an idle parlour game, it has become a serious question.
A separate Conservative Home survey of grassroots members showed that Theresa May has, for the first time, overtaken Boris Johnson as the top choice for next leader of the party. The margin is narrow indeed: the Home Secretary gets 22.7 per cent of support, while the London Mayor has 22.6 per cent. But what is significant is that May's rating is up four points, while those of her rivals Johnson and Michael Gove (17 per cent) are static.
The Home Secretary will be braced for criticism from the right over Romanian and Bulgarian immigration, but she has enough credit among Conservative MPs – the Tory leadership electorate – for finally deporting Abu Qatada to be able to ride this out. A Modern Slavery Bill, published just before Christmas, will win her further support from the broader Conservative MP base.
In Westminster she is described as ice cool, yet she is witty – her speech in November at the Spectator awards, where she won Politician of the Year, was packed full of jokes, including one self-deprecating reference to the Daily Mail's comparison of her with the 21-year-old supermodel Cara Delevingne. Incidentally, her speech also contained a withering put-down of Boris, who handed her the award on stage. May said she once called Johnson when they were neighbouring constituency MPs and asked him where he was. "That is a very good question, where am I?" Johnson asked. May told the awards audience: "I'm very glad you have made it here today."
She is often compared to Margaret Thatcher (as is any woman tipped to lead her party), yet despite her credentials as a right-wing Home Secretary, a decade ago she was a Conservative moderniser who rankled her leader, Iain Duncan Smith. Could she, the progressive centre of the party think, still hold some of the modernising promise that Cameron has failed to deliver as Prime Minister? Johnson has the edge over May on personality – but the Home Secretary has a better record on delivery.
What could count against her is that she has some way to go in amassing a strong support base of MPs. Many complain that she rubs them up the wrong way, others she cuts dead. Perhaps some more of her humour is needed in the tea room.
Lawson makes a move
One of the best things on radio over Christmas – in fact, one of the best things on radio for a long time – was the Across The Board series for Radio 4, presented by Dominic Lawson in which he conducts interviews, over a game of chess, with other aficionados of the game. With commentary by a grandmaster, it was gripping, even though you couldn't see the chess being played.
Lawson beat Rachel Reeves, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and former junior British girls chess champion, after the MP's rather reckless manoeuvres. Unlike her politics, then, in which she plays a steady and cautious game.
Asked by Lawson whether she wanted to be leader one day, Reeves said: "That is not something I want to be, really. I don't think so. I am not sure if that is a job for me. I think you have to make too many sacrifices in terms of your family, your life outside of politics." An interesting reply, given she is so readily tipped as Ed Miliband's successor. Yet are we in Westminster looking in the wrong place when we visualise Reeves on the steps of No 10? Given her background in economics, shouldn't we be tipping her as the first female Chancellor of the Exchequer?
Steep learning curve
Congratulations, Tatler, for recognising that excellence exists in state schools. The magazine's list of the best state primaries and secondaries in Britain shows it is not just league tables that make brilliant schools: inspirational headteachers make all the difference. There are still too many bad schools, and going through the application process is agony for many families.
This month we are choosing a state primary school for our daughter, and have in the last year watched formerly good schools be downgraded to satisfactory/requires improvement, while for others in our area of south London this has been reversed. But a decade ago, it was commonplace to say schools in London were bad – now 83 per cent of primaries are either good or outstanding. The picture is the same across the country – 78 per cent across England are good or outstanding, and these proportions are the same for those maintained by the local authority. State education is not perfect, but it is a success story, and one that Michael Gove should recognise.
One thing I learned over the holiday is the Bulgarian tradition of leaving a small amount of food on your plate at the last meal of the year. So the custom goes, this means you will not go hungry the following year. This also sounds quite smart, because rather than gorging on platefuls of food, we should save our leftovers for another day. As I've said before, Bulgarians (and Romanians) have many things to offer us Britons.
Rudeness on the rails
First-class carriages should only be axed, as ministers proposed last week, if train companies improve the space in standard class.
Between Christmas and New Year, I enjoyed the rare experience of travelling first class between York and Rugby (it was supposed to be by two trains, but the bad weather meant so many were cancelled it became three). I booked the tickets weeks ago, so it was only marginally more expensive than standard class. But the main reason was because nearly all the seats in standard class were booked up.
Delays and cancellations meant the first-class carriages were rather busy, but once I got to the final leg, from Birmingham to Rugby, I was relieved we had a carriage to ourselves – after what was by then already a five-hour journey. As we sat down, felt tip pens and colouring book out on the table, exhausted and frazzled from all the train and platform hopping, a slightly grand woman got on and glared at us. She was a passenger, not a ticket collector, yet snapped: "Have you booked a first-class ticket?" "Yes, have you?" I replied, as she blustered down the carriage. At least the demise of first-class carriages would also mean the end of first-class snobs.