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
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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