Was Adam Afriyie stitched up as a warning to other would-be Tory rebels?

Tory MPs are in no hurry to dismiss the possibility that Downing Street leaked the story to expose a small rebel cell early in its development.

There is no chance of Adam Afriyie, the Conservative MP for Windsor, leading his party this side of a general election. There wasn’t much chance of him ever leading it before yesterday’s papers reported a nascent plot to line him up as David Cameron’s successor/usurper. Now that the plot’s bolt is prematurely shot that chance has shrunk to somewhere in the region of zilch.

So what is going on? As I wrote in my column last week, there is no shortage of resentment against Cameron in the Tory party. The underlying causes of that seething unrest have not gone away despite a burst of loyal exuberance following the promise of a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership.

There is a small and noisy cohort of Conservative MPs – I call them The Implacables – who are effectively in opposition already. They seem to want to accelerate the party’s defeat in the next election in order to provoke a crisis that would engulf the whole Cameroon “modernising” enterprise. They might then seize control and steer the Tories towards what they see as a more authentic Conservative agenda. In this respect, The Tory Implacables are to the right what Bennite ultras once were to Labour and the left – chasing ideological purity over electability and hating moderates on their own side with more vigour and passion than they hate the party opposite. They seem to relish the purgative potential of a leadership meltdown.

Even so, it seems unlikely any subscriber to that tendency would be so inept as to brief a couple of Sunday newspapers about their plans to unseat the Prime Minister and replace him with an MP of whom no-one outside Westminster (or his own constituency) has heard. If there was any kind of movement behind Adam Afriyie, I very much doubt it wanted its manoeuvres splashed all over the Mail on Sunday; still less at the end of a week when the Tory party was trying to make a big show of loyalty and was revelling in the perceived triumph of Cameron’s Big Europe Speech ™.

The net effect of the publicity was to make the plotters look like a small, ridiculous fanatical sect and to invite opprobrium from the overwhelming majority of Tories, which was I suspect the purpose of placing those stories in the papers. The source was, in other words, not Afriyie’s "friends" but quite the opposite. It was a device to expose a small rebel cell early on in its development and at a time when the Prime Minister is strong in order to stifle it and flush out any sympathisers. Perhaps that sounds like an over-elaborate conspiracy theory. Cock-up and ineptitude are usually the safest explanation for any rash-looking action in politics. Still, Tories I have spoken to today are in no hurry to dismiss the possibility that Afriyie’s head has, metaphorically speaking, been stuck on a spike outside Downing Street as a warning to others.

Update: I notice Peter Oborne is picking up much the same vibe.

Adam Afriyie, the Conservative MP for Windsor, was reported to be plotting to succeed David Cameron if the Conservatives are defeated in 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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David Cameron’s speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.