The parliamentary office of Graham Brady contains one of the most closely guarded secrets in Westminster. It is here that the letters from Conservative MPs demanding a confidence vote in David Cameron are kept. Only Brady, who as chairman of the backbench 1922 committee administers the system, knows for certain how many there are. The epistolary assassins are guaranteed anonymity – unless they choose to make their intentions public.
Under Brady’s predecessor, Michael Spicer, the letters required annual renewal but they now remain on file unless withdrawn. Should the number reach 50 (15 per cent of Tory MPs), the 1922 chairman will consult with Cameron and determine the date of a confidence vote “as soon as possible in the circumstances prevailing”. If the Conservative leader wins a majority in the subsequent ballot he remains in office and is rewarded with a year’s immunity. If he loses, he is obliged to resign and barred from standing in the leadership election that follows.
The last Tory leader to be removed through these means was Cameron’s predecessor but one, Iain Duncan Smith. It was on 27 October 2003 that Spicer received the 25 letters required to trigger a ballot. That the number is now twice as large is a mark of Cameron’s success. No Conservative leader since 1906 has added more MPs (132) to the Tories’ parliamentary tally. Cameron is the only prime minister since 1832 to have increased his party’s share of the vote and seats after serving a full term in office. To the two referendum victories he has already achieved, he may soon add a third – and some in his party would never forgive him.
There was nothing surprising about the three Conservative MPs who pre-emptively threatened Cameron. Andrew Bridgen previously submitted a letter of no confidence in 2013 (rescinded the following year) and compared the Prime Minister to a pilot who “doesn’t know how to land” a plane. Nadine Dorries described Cameron and George Osborne in 2012 as “two arrogant posh boys” who “don’t know the price of milk”. Bill Cash, as Hansard testifies, has made it his life’s work to extract the UK from European governance. “The real story would be if they were for Cameron,” a Conservative minister said to me.
Others are more forthright. A senior Tory MP raged at how the EU referendum had empowered “utterly irresponsible nutters” to “shout ‘get rid of Cameron’”. He added: “They are making one massive calculation. They think they’ve got numbers – they haven’t. They’re a self-indulgent small rump who in the end the majority of the party will tell to f**k off.”
Those who believe that Cameron could face a confidence vote (MPs estimate there are already at least 30 letters in Brady’s office) emphasise that there is no prospect of it succeeding. Too many owe their seats to a man who has long outpolled his party. Yet a closer than expected result in the referendum would diminish Cameron’s authority. Margaret Thatcher’s fate was foretold by 60 of her colleagues either voting for “stalking horse” Anthony Meyer, abstaining or spoiling their ballots in the 1989 Conservative contest.
The “irreconcilables”, as one Tory MP calls them, have been joined by those incensed by Cameron’s pro-EU campaigning. Unlike Harold Wilson, who remained above the fray during the 1975 referendum, the Prime Minister has engaged in bare-knuckle political combat. Since his job depends on a Remain vote this is hardly surprising. The pro-Brexit stance of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (whom Cameron expected to support him) heightened his determination to lead from the front. “He won’t be forgiven – especially if it’s a narrow defeat for us,” a Tory rebel told me.
Rather than exacting revenge, most expect Cameron to stage a “reconciliation reshuffle” if he wins the referendum. This could include promotions for moderate Brexiters such as Andrea Leadsom and James Wharton, and prominent cabinet positions for Johnson and Gove. But a senior MP warned against “over-rewarding” the pair. He revealed that several colleagues had informed the chief whip that they would resign the Conservative whip if Gove was made deputy prime minister.
A significant section of the party, including the pragmatic 2015 intake, shares Cameron’s original desire to stop “banging on about Europe”. The modernising 2020 Group, chaired by the life sciences minister George Freeman, is working on policies to support the Prime Minister’s “one nation” agenda. But the slightness of Cameron’s majority (12 seats) means only a small number of malcontents are required to wreck his legislative programme. “He’ll be groping around for a legacy but he won’t have any parliamentary firepower,” said one MP. If he is not deprived of office, Cameron could be deprived of power.
Some predict that having pledged not to stand for a third term, he will be forced to set a fixed date for his departure, as Tony Blair was in 2006. “If it’s a zombie parliament, MPs will get restless after two years and maybe earlier,” predicted a backbencher. Unlike Wilson, who maintained authority by refusing to reveal his intentions, Cameron’s pre-resignation has inevitably corroded his standing.
The referendum risks having precisely the consequences that those who opposed it predicted. Far from settling the European question, it may only sharpen it. If the result is close, and even if it is not, the campaign for a second referendum will begin on 24 June. The most lasting legacy of the vote may be the election of a pro-Brexit Conservative leader. Like his undefeated counterparts, Thatcher and Blair, Cameron could suffer that most ambiguous of fates: winning in the country but losing in his party.
This article appears in the 01 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind