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Cameron’s own backbenches land deadlier blows on him than Labour

A growing number of Tory MPs don’t believe Cameron’s way can work – a prophecy that fulfils itself.

David Cameron doesn’t lurch. It isn’t his style. When presented with the view that the newly shuffled government has turned abruptly to the right, the Prime Minister’s allies point out that no policies have changed. They insist that ministerial hirings and firings were months in gestation and painstakingly choreographed; definitely not a lurch. “Maybe a gentle sashay,” concedes one top Cameroon.

Some appointments advertised themselves as balm for irritable backbenchers. Chris Grayling, now Justice Secretary, makes pugnacious noises about the European Union, immigration and welfare that sound melodious to his party’s ear. Owen Paterson, the new Environment Secretary, is another anti-European and has been pointedly sceptical about renewable energy. (Wind turbines compete with Brussels as the chief target of shire Tory rage.)

Paterson’s elevation is seen by Lib Dems as an affront to the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, whose department is supposed to lead on climate change. A greenish streak, measured by increased investment in low-carbon energy, is one of the few distinguishing marks that the junior coalition party still hopes to leave on the government’s record. Senior Lib Dems accuse George Osborne of obstructing them in that goal. In private, the Chancellor is said to speak with contempt for the legal rules that commit the UK to reducing toxic emissions, seeing them as a burden on industry.

Hostile briefings

Osborne’s fingerprints were all over the re­shuffle. The transfer of Justine Greening from Transport has widely been interpreted as a sign of frustration at her opposition to expanding Heathrow Airport. Her independence on that point felt like ingratitude to the Chancellor for past patronage. The move was accompanied by hostile briefings about Greening’s competence and un-collegiate attitude. The unspoken message: “we created you; we can destroy you”.

The crudeness of the attempt to assert central authority, more than any ideological shift, is what most Tories see as the defining feature of the reshuffle. “It was clearly a consolidation of the Chancellor’s power,” says one MP. Friends of Cameron and Osborne were given jobs at the expense of able incumbents. Good ministers were punished for exclusion from the leader’s club – or so it is said on the back benches. Grumbling of that nature is inevitable, since there are never enough jobs for everyone, but Downing Street has spawned twin resentments. Dissenters still feel their views are not adequately represented; loyalists feel passed over.

A small but resolute minority of Conservative MPs are beyond reconciliation with Cameron’s leadership. One No 10 source estimates that around 40 backbenchers are “already in opposition”. That is approaching the critical mass needed to trigger a leadership contest.

It is on the economy that most Tory hopes of a truer blue surge were pinned in the reshuffle. There were cheers for the insertion of Michael Fallon, a veteran of the Thatcher government, into the Business Department – seen as a haven of Lib Dem sedition. Fallon is there to stoke the bonfire of regulations Vince Cable is accused of neglecting. Also now flanking Cable as a junior minister is Matthew Hancock, an Osborne avatar from the 2010 parliamentary cohort.

But here, too, the movement is less lurching than it first looked. Fallon’s first pronouncements in his new job have indeed been lusty battle cries against the scourge of red tape. Then, on 11 September, Cable emerged with a “new industrial policy” – support for small businesses through a state investment bank and targeted intervention to support sectors likely to deliver growth. He denounced the “laissez-faire” doctrine of free-market ideologues. Thatcherite dogmatists blanched.

Labour attacked Cable’s announcement as a paltry imitation of their own plans, punted by a dissident minister without Downing Street support. The second part of that charge is just wrong. Recognition of the need for more activist government to spur growth has been brewing inside No 10 and the Treasury for months. The case has also been made by David Willetts, another of Cable’s Tory colleagues at the Business Department. Michael Heseltine, torch-bearer for the interventionist strain of Conservatism, has been advising Cameron. One senior Tory policymaker even talks approvingly of the “strategic state” envisaged by Peter Mandelson, Labour’s last business secretary, as a corrective to the cult of laissez faire.

Economic horizon

The Prime Minister and the Chancellor will never say aloud that they are working on a “Plan B”, having failed to jump-start growth with budgetary aggression. Plainly, they are. Alongside the new industrial strategy are plans to boost spending on infrastructure – a stimulus measure fuelled by more borrowing. There are reports that the Treasury is poised to drop its target for containing the national debt by 2015.  

That isn’t to say Cameron and Osborne will succeed in changing course or get much credit if they do. They are trapped by their record of intransigent rhetoric and by their party, which baulks at even token gestures away from ultra-Conservative orthodoxy. But there is time before an election for the economic horizon to brighten and for the Chancellor to say that his decisions made it happen.

Labour consistently overestimate Cameron and Osborne’s intellectual rigidity. All the evidence shows they change their minds with ease. The U-turn is their most practised manoeuvre. Ed Miliband likes to attack the Prime Minister for what Labour imagines him to believe. Conservative MPs have the better measure of their leader, disliking him for not really believing in anything at all.

Cameron’s lack of a creed was once an asset. It persuaded many voters that he was a reasonable man, distinct from the fanaticism of old Tory caricature. It flummoxed Labour. But the gap has gone too long unfilled. The path to a governing purpose has been too meandering; no lurches, just a sashaying sequence of tactics to grab and hold power, accompanied with a complacent expectation that the party will tag along. But a growing number of MPs don’t believe Cameron’s way can work – a prophecy that fulfils itself. Whenever Tories pop up to say their leader is fumbling in the dark for answers, they obstruct the Downing Street searchlights. The louder they call Cameron a loser, the truer it becomes.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?