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.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.