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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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