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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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