Tory MPs turn on Cameron and Osborne

"At the root of much of the catastrophe we have become is George Osborne," says Tory backbencher Nad

Ever since David Cameron entered into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, there have been rumblings of discontent from the right wing of the Conservative Party.

Thus far, it has not spilled out into an all-out rebellion, but it appears that the disasters of last week may have been too much for some. Cameron was reportedly confronted at a private meeting with the powerful 1922 Committee of backbenchers, who told him that fundamental changes were needed for the party to win an outright majority at the next election.

Further to this, several MPs have voiced their concerns to the Daily Telegraph, both on and off the record.

Rather than the standard Euroscepticism and social conservatism, MPs have expressed concern that government policies -- from pasties to jerry cans -- are not being communicated properly to voters, particularly those in marginal seats. They are also calling for a full time Conservative Party chairman appointed from the Commons, as opposed to the current arrangement where two peers share the job.

But what is really interesting is the level of personal criticism of Cameron and George Osborne, who are both lambasted for being out of touch and surrounding themselves with other public schoolboys. This perception is shared by voters -- a ComRes poll this weekend found that 72 per cent of voters believe the government is out of touch -- but coming from within the party, it is particularly damning. The backbenchers have called for a ministerial reshuffle to promote more MPs from working class and northern backgrounds. Mark Pritchard, a member of the 1922 executive, said that the reshuffle should "make the government a little less foie gras and a little more fish and chips", while a senior MP speaking off the record said:

The PM is surrounded by people who look like him, and that is a serious concern. It stops him getting the full range of advice. His reshuffle should ensure that the government looks more like the Conservative Party as a whole.

Osborne, in particular, is under fire, with MPs calling for him to end his dual role as Chancellor and head of Conservative political strategy. It is suggested that doing both roles is undermining his competency in both, allowing careless policies like the new tax on pasties to blow up into national controversies. Backbench MP Nadine Dorries condemned the Chancellor in extraordinarily strong terms:

Many people now look at the Conservative Party and are reeling with the realisation that this modern party is one they don't know, didn't vote for and no longer represents their views. They don't recognise the values, are confused by the policies and repelled by the elitism. At the root of much of the catastrophe we have become is George Osborne. He drives the liberal elite agenda.

Cameron has staked an immense amount on his faith in his friend Osborne, who frequently chairs the No 10 meetings that run the coalition day to day. Downing Street's strategy appears to be to wait it out and weather the storm: a spokesman insisted there would be "no big change" to the way Cameron runs things. And this could well work: as James Kirkup points out, Tony Blair survived a crisis of confidence over fuel, and went onto win the 2001 election. But with the odds stacked against a Tory majority, it is important that, at the very least, Cameron gets his own party on side.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Will the House of Lords block Brexit?

Process, and a desire to say "I told you so" will be the real battle lines. 

It’s the people versus the peers, at least as far as some overly-excited Brexiteers are concerned. The bill to trigger Article 50 starts its passage through the House of Lords today, and with it, a row about the unelected chamber and how it ought to behave as far as Brexit is concerned.

This week will, largely, be sound and fury. More peers have signed up to speak than since Tony Blair got rid of the bulk of hereditary peers, triggering a 200-peer long queue of parliamentarians there to rage against the dying of the light, before, inevitably, the Commons prevailed over the Lords.

And to be frank, the same is ultimately going to happen with Article 50. From former SDPers, now either Labour peers or Liberal Democrat peers, who risked their careers over Europe, to the last of the impeccably pro-European Conservatives, to committed Labour and Liberal politicians, there are a number of pro-Europeans who will want to make their voices heard before bowing to the inevitable. Others, too, will want to have their “I told you so” on record should it all go belly-up.

The real battle starts next week, when the bill enters committee stage, and it is then that peers will hope to extract concessions from the government, either through defeat in the Lords or the threat of defeat in the Lords. Opposition peers will aim to secure concessions on the process of the talks, rather than to frustrate the exit.

But there are some areas where the government may be forced to give way. The Lords will seek to codify the government’s promise of a vote on the deal and to enshrine greater parliamentary scrutiny of the process, which is hard to argue against, and the government may concede that quarterly statements to the House on the process of Brexit are a price worth paying, and will, in any case, be a concession they end up making further down the line anyway.

But the big prize is the rights of EU citizens already resident here.  The Lords has the advantage of having the overwhelming majority of the public – and the promises of every senior Leaver during the referendum campaign – behind them on that issue. When the unelected chamber faces down the elected, they like to have the weight of public opinion behind them so this is a well-chosen battleground.

But as Alex Barker explains in today’s FT, the rights of citizens aren’t as easy to guarantee as they look. Do pensions count? What about the children of EU citizens? What about access to social security and health? Rights that are easy to protect in the UK are more fraught in Spain, for instance. What about a British expat, working in, say, Italy, married to an Italian, who divorces, but wishes to remain in Italy afterwards? There is general agreement on all sides that the rights of Brits living in the rest of the EU and citizens of the EU27 living here need to be respected and guaranteed. But that even areas of broad agreement are the subject of fraught negotiation shows why those “I told you sos”  may come in handy sooner than we think.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.