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14 February 2010

Cameron is complacent about the Tory right flank

Internal opposition is not restricted to "one or two backwoodsmen".

By George Eaton

The key moment in Michael Gove’s interview with Andrew Marr this morning came when he was challenged on the growing opposition from the right of the Tory party to the Cameron project. He replied:

When you carry out any kind of modernisation there are always one or two backwoodsmen who will grumble in the undergrowth.

In fact, the evidence suggests that a far greater number of MPs and activists remain highly sceptical of David Cameron’s modernising agenda. There are two critical divisions: the first over policy and the second over party structure. The main tensions in the first category are over climate change and Europe.

On climate change, which ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie has predicted will prove as divisive for the party as Europe was in the 1990s, we have seen that reducing Britain’s carbon footprint is the lowest priority for Tory candidates. As Montgomerie points out: “You have got 80 per cent or 90 per cent of the party just not signed up to this. No one minded at the beginning, but people are starting to realise it could be quite expensive, so opinion is hardening.”

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On Europe, although Cameron would most likely be the most Eurosceptic prime minister in history, many activists and backbenchers remain angered by his refusal to promise a referendum on any aspect of Britain’s EU membership. Unless he manages to repatriate significant powers from Brussels (which is unlikely), we can expect this issue to flare up again.

Tory modernisers are fond of reminding us that significant sections of the Labour Party never accepted Tony Blair’s policy agenda. Yet there is a big difference. Following the repeal of Clause Four, there was no serious constituency of support for wholesale nationalisation. But in the case of today’s Tories, the right-wing dominance of the press means that Euroscepticism and and climate-change denialism have not been similarly discredited.

Meanwhile, the Joanne Cash affair demonstrates how hostile many local activists are towards what they see as Cameron’s centralisation of the party. That the debacle took place in Westminster North (not usually Turnip Taliban territory) makes one wonder how much anger there is elsewhere in the country.

It is increasingly likely that Cameron will be forced either to swerve to the right or to lead a divided and resentful party. These are equally unpalatable options for a modernising leader.

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