Cameron's travels: first in opposition, then as Prime Minister. Illustration: David Young.
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Captured Cameron: how David Cameron is tied down by his own party

Under pressure from party moderates, bullied by the Tory right, the Prime Minister seems caught in a trap of his own making.

There will be no party at the next general election promising more of the same. This is one of the ways that coalition has shredded British political precedent. A governing party usually tries to convince people that it deserves another term in office, while the opposition says it’s time for a change.

Next time, continuity will not be on the ballot paper. Labour will offer the most thorough upheaval but many Tories will also reject features of the government that David Cameron has led. To express authentic Conservative ambitions requires denouncing compromise with the Liberal Democrats. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg must look relaxed about regime change, as long as he can inveigle his way into the new regime. Ukip will fulminate against all the parties currently represented at Westminster.

Every one of those factors limits the scope of a Cameron re-election campaign. Downing Street believes that economic recovery will be well enough established by May 2015 to allow a plausible claim that the country has been saved from ruin. A problem for the Prime Minister is the number of people on the government side ready to belittle his role as the supposed author of that success.

The Lib Dems will echo the Conservative economic story in so far as it tells of reckless Labour spending reined in by a coalition of fiscal disciplinarians. Beyond that, Clegg’s party intends to paint Cameron as the hostage of fanatics in his party who cannot be trusted to reduce a deficit without recourse to callousness.

On Cameron’s right flank are Tory MPs who give George Osborne’s austere budgets and stingy spending reviews only grudging approval. They see austerity as the launch pad for a more ambitious assault on the whole apparatus of British government inherited from the 20th century. This is not just an economic doctrine. It is a liberation theology. It supposes that the nation’s potential is suffocated by forces inimical to free enterprise – Brussels bureaucrats, Strasbourg judges, Whitehall civil servants, trade unions, public-sector lefties who resist academic rigour in state schools and measure social progress by the size of the benefits bill.

The clearest blueprint for this brand of turbo-Thatcherism is Britannia Unchained, a collection of essays published in autumn 2012 by five MPs from the 2010 parliamentary intake. One of them, Liz Truss, is now an education minister and is sometimes spoken of as a future party leader. The volume is a call to arms against “the siren voices of the statists who are happy for Britain to become a second-rate power in Europe, and a third-rate power in the world”.

Younger Tory radicals are not offended by Cameron’s indulgence of modern social mores. They are less likely than older colleagues to be appalled by homosexuality or working motherhood. Among supporters of a rebellious amendment to the government’s Immigration Bill on 30 January, in effect repudiating Britain’s signature on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), were several MPs who last year voted in favour of gay marriage. Dominic Raab, the 39-year-old Surrey MP who tabled the amendment, was one. What frustrates the new generation is the Prime Minister’s lack of crusader zeal to emancipate Albion from infidel regulation.

The Raab rebellion, rallying 85 Tory MPs, exquisitely probed Cameron’s weakness. The aim was to stop foreign criminals invoking the right to “a family life” as a defence against deportation, appealing to a strain of modern Conservatism that sees human rights law as a Continental virus ravaging indigenous justice.

In another context, the Prime Minister once said that the duty to comply with the ECHR made him feel “physically ill”. On this occasion, Downing Street let it be understood that he had “great sympathy” with the Raab rebels but could not endorse their proposal, because it contradicted existing statute. As a compromise, No 10 let government ministers abstain, leaving it to Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs to make sure parliament honoured the law of the land.

It was a ridiculous abdication of prime ministerial responsibility but not a surprise. It has become routine for Cameron to placate his restive party at the expense of his credibility, especially when anything European is involved.

Each appeasement buys a shorter respite. Last year’s pledge to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership and put the resulting settlement to the country in a referendum was meant to sate rebellious appetites and stem the flow of Conservative voters to Ukip – the concession to end all concessions. It failed.

Since then, Ukip has grown, not least because its supporters are enraged by a lot more than Britain’s membership of the EU. Meanwhile, Cameron has been forced to support a backbench motion enshrining the referendum pledge in law (binding the next parliament, in defiance of constitutional norms). When the Lords thwarted that manoeuvre, Downing Street indicated it might deploy the Parliament Act – a legislative battering ram reserved for a government’s most cherished priorities – to get the phantom plebiscite on to the statute book.

Backbenchers are also pestering No 10 to name the powers that might be “repatriated” from Brussels. They make demands – a halt to cross-border movement of labour, for example – that amount to withdrawal from the Union. This process ratchets Cameron ever further away from realistic negotiations with his Continental counterparts. In the past fortnight, both the French president and the German foreign minister have indicated that the EU will not rewrite its treaties to Cameron’s preferred timetable.

That suits the Tory militants just fine. Their goal is to ramp up expectations of “Brexit”, issuing unrealistic demands to justify the claim that Brussels apparatchiks are beyond redemption. Thus they tug Tory policy towards an unambiguous “better off out” position. It is hard to see how, if he is still prime minister after 2015, Cameron could sustain his current queasy Euro-pragmatism without facing a leadership challenge. With a year still to go, he will surely be prodded further towards the EU exit before polling day.

Downing Street hopes that recent rebellions represent a last spasm of indiscipline before MPs take fright at the prospect of Ed Miliband becoming prime minister and fall into line. While most of the parliamentary party is ready to unite in battle formation, there remains a kernel of safe-seated Tory extremists who see losing in 2015 as a staging post on the road to purification of party doctrines. Their next opportunity for organised disruption will come after the elections to the European Parliament this May. Ukip will perform well, possibly pushing the Tories into third place for the first time in a nationwide vote. No one doubts that this will provoke anxiety in Conservative ranks. The question is whether it will trigger prolonged panic.

Much depends on whether, in the intervening weeks, Labour’s lead in the opinion polls holds steady or dips towards parity with the Tories. The second scenario would suggest an economic dividend for the government, likely to grow in the run-up to a general election. That would support a view of May’s result as a self-contained protest vote. As one cabinet minister puts it: “The European elections will indicate as much about a general election as European elections always do, which is bugger all.”

However, if Labour’s poll lead is not soon whittled away, some Tories will start to calculate the rising probability that they are heading for opposition. “At that point, we go into the death spiral,” says a pessimistic MP. “The government will start to look like a mangy three-legged dog that needs to be put out of its misery.”

Nigel Farage’s popularity also has a psychological impact on Conservative associations that goes deeper than poll performance. He reminds members how uninspired they are by their own leader. Ukip has put the Tory grass roots in obstreperous mood. MPs do not dare ignore members’ concerns when high-handedness can be punished with deselection. An angry constituency association increasingly has a stronger hold over an MP than the whips’ office. Cameron is now at the bottom of the Tory chain of command with disgruntled activists at the top.

For a certain breed of Tory radical this is a healthy democratic development. More liberal-minded Conservatives see it as a continuation of the slide towards mean-spirited reaction that accounts for the party’s failure to win a majority since 1992.

There was enough concern on that front to mobilise a delegation of about 25 MPs last November to warn the Prime Minister against constant indulgence of the right-wing fringe. They were spurred into action by reports of Cameron’s dismissal of environmental policy as “green crap”, although their grumbles covered a wider range of problems. A particular source of irritation is the way the Prime Minister ignores loyalty and rewards rebellion.

It was, according to those involved, a heated exchange that left the complainants disappointed. Their intention had been to show Cameron that he could not keep taking the quiescence of his moderate MPs for granted but, in reality, he can. For all their frustration, they know that the current leadership is the most liberal one they are likely to get.

While civil war could break out if the Tories end up in opposition, the threat this side of an election is death by attrition. The rebels keep setting the agenda because Cameron’s emollient response gives them permission to do so. Moderate advisers and MPs in marginal seats are leaving, though many of them arrived in parliament as recently as 2010. Disproportionate numbers of those standing down are women. Louise Mensch quit in 2012. Lorraine Fullbrook won’t be contesting South Ribble, Jessica Lee is stepping down in Erewash and Laura Sandys, one the ringleaders of the moderates’ delegation to Cameron, is leaving South Thanet on the Kent coast. It is one of the seats that Farage is thought to be eyeing as a possible entry point to parliament.

Privately, many Tories concede that even a small exodus of women doesn’t look good. It feeds the public perception of a party in coagulation. The once-fluid culture of British Conservatism is shrivelling and hardening. Cameron has already proved that he cannot reverse this decline. Membership has halved on his watch.

The defence of his leadership is that the job is nigh impossible and that no one could have led the party better. The same argument is deployed to advertise his achievements as Prime Minister. In 2010 the country was in crisis, say Cameron’s allies, and the electorate had delivered an uncertain verdict. Yet, four years later, the coalition is still holding together, the economy is growing, the deficit is being tackled. This has been accomplished only because the Prime Minister has exhibited a combination of unyielding self-belief and intellectual agility. Thus, the two traits most often cited as Cameron’s failings – arrogance and lack of a fixed creed – are reconfigured as assets.

Yet underpinning this account is a recognition that the Prime Minister’s chief accomplishment is the running of a coalition, which will not be contesting the next election. He is par excellence the candidate of more of the same when there will be no party campaigning under that banner. There is an irresolvable tension between the man the Conservative Party proposes as prime minister – representing continuity – and its members who cry out against the status quo. That impulse might be suppressed for the duration of an election campaign but not for long afterwards.

By May 2015, David Cameron will have led the Tory party for ten years and the country for five. It was not clear to begin with what his ambitions were, other than to hold the title of prime minister, which is one reason why the voters denied him a majority. What he imagines doing with a second term is even more obscure. His leadership is defined by the constraints imposed on it. His political identity is a latticework of improvisation and compromise. His friends say his self-assured vagueness is his strength, in keeping with venerable traditions of well-meaning, patrician Tory pragmatism. That is indeed his best recommendation. But it also offers him up as a prime minister of the old school, marooned in a party and in an age that is restless for something new. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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