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Leadership speculation harms the Tories but they can't help themselves

Conservative MPs' anguish flows from their knowledge that Cameron is both the best candidate and not good enough to deliver outright victory.

Cameron and Johnson
Undisguised rivalry. David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Source: Getty

Some features of the political landscape are so banally unchanging that Westminster, with its addiction to volatility, chooses simply to ignore them. One such is the fact that David Cameron is by far the best candidate to lead the Tory party into the next election and will do so. The incumbent has many flaws. I wrote about at least one of them in the magazine this week. But there is no ready alternative. The majority of Tory MPs – and, when they are being candid, Labour MPs – can see that Cameron’s capabilities as a confident performer, offering the reassurance of continuity in difficult times, constitute the Tories' best chance of thwarting Ed Miliband.

It follows that those Conservatives who currently encourage talk of the succession have already decided that there is no way Cameron can win in 2015 or actively want him to fail. That is plainly true of a hard core of MPs – the fifth column, as Matthew Parris once described them – who relish the prospect of seeing the Prime Minister humiliated. By most accounts their number is no more than around 30.

More reasonable Tory MPs have learned to live with the fanaticism in their midst and wait in hope that proximity to the election will eventually impose discipline. There was, therefore, astonishment at the appearance of stories in the Times and the Mail on Sunday in the past week stoking speculation about Boris Johnson’s return to parliament. It was reported that Downing Street wanted the London Mayor to get involved in the general election campaign and bind himself in institutional loyalty to the Cameron project before polling day by standing as an MP. This has been widely interpreted as a gambit by the Chancellor to flush out Boris’s intentions and force his hand, thereby destabilising whatever strategy he might have to position himself as a White Knight saviour of the Tories after a 2015 defeat. Boris was said to be enraged.

Of course, the net outcome of all of this is that collectively the Tories look a little bit less familiar with the distinction between arse and elbow. News stories predicated on top Tories calculating the probability of defeat makes defeat more probable. Seen from the point of view of the rank and file, loyal but mostly anonymous MPs – the ones who just want to get on with trying to govern effectively and taking the fight to Labour – all of this briefing and counter-briefing is self-indulgent and self-destructive. It’s bad enough when maverick rebels on the back benches rock the boat. Seeing it rocked from the centre is thoroughly depressing.

And yet the speculation won’t quite go away because most Tories have done the maths and worked out that, in all likelihood, a Commons majority is beyond their reach. They might pin Labour back as the economy recovers. Ukip might shrivel after the European elections. But even in the most auspicious circumstances it is hard to see Cameron’s share of the vote soaring to the 40-plus mark at which point control of parliament becomes a realistic prospect. And if the limit to Conservative ambition is being the biggest party in a hung parliament, there is also a natural ceiling on loyalty to the leader – even when he is the best one available. This is the underlying cause of all Tory anguish . They know it doesn’t get better without Cameron and they know that with Cameron it isn’t good enough.

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