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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.

Cameron's travels: first in opposition, then as Prime Minister
Cameron's travels: first in opposition, then as Prime Minister. Illustration: David Young.

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.