Tory rebels set Cameron a deadline - but it's Osborne who's in greater danger

Conservative MPs are planning to demand the removal of Osborne as Chancellor if the economy fails to recover by May.

If David Cameron hoped that his pledge of an in/out EU referendum would lead to a cessation of hostilities in the Tory party it looks as if he was sorely mistaken. Little more than a week after Cameron's speech, Conservative MPs are reacquiring their taste for regicide. The Guardian reports that the Tories are prepared to force a vote of no confidence in the PM unless the party's poll ratings improve by the summer of 2014. One minister is quoted as saying: 

This is not necessarily about waiting until 2015 and seeing if David Cameron loses. This is about being ready for the moment when the party realises that Cameron is not a winner.

If this sounds outlandish, it's worth remembering that just 46 MPs - 15 per cent of the Conservative parliamentary party - are required to write to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, to trigger an automatic confidence vote. 

One MP said: "There is a core of MPs that is determined to get rid of Cameron right now. They think he lost the last election, they think he cannot win the next election and maybe doesn't even want to win the election. They think he just likes the idea of being a coalition prime minister.

"While this group are wrong to think of a move now, there would be support for a contest if there is no movement for the party by 2014. There would be no problem in drumming up 46 letters to Graham Brady at that point. I could name them. I would support it."

Cameron's cause is not helped by the fact that any bounce from his speech appears to have already dissipated. Labour's lead fell to just six in the weekend polls but it had risen to nine by the middle of the week and today it stands at 12, back at the level seen before Cameron's referendum pledge.

But it's not just the PM that MPs have in their sights. The Daily Mail reports that the rebels are prepared to demand the removal of George Osborne as Chancellor if the economy fails to show signs of recovery by the time of the local elections. "The idea is that you deliver an ultimatum to the PM telling him to get rid of George," one MP is quoted as saying.

Another adds: "You wouldn’t get 80 people supporting Adam Afriyie for leader but you might get 80 or 100 people saying get rid of George." 

But it is hard to see Cameron acquiescing to this demand. Unusually for a Prime Minister and Chancellor, Cameron and Osborne are close friends, with Osborne godfather to Cameron's son, Elwen. Tory MPs, however, will remind the Prime Minister of his response when asked back in 2010 if he could ever sack Osborne. 

Yes. He is a good friend, but we’ve has that conversation a number of times over the past four years.

To be fair to George he said ‘If ever you want to move me to another job, it is your decision and it is your right’.

The assumption that Osborne and Cameron rise and fall together most likely remains correct. But if the sacrifice of Osborne is the price for saving his leadership, the PM may yet be forced to act. 

Conservative rebels are preparing to write to David Cameron demanding the removal of George Osborne if the economy fails to improve. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.