David Cameron and George Osborne have not had a great couple of weeks. The Budget triggered a torrent of bad headlines – the peculiar double tax bombshell on grannies and pasties blasted a hole in the Tory leadership’s reputation for strategic judgment. Mishandling of the public alert over possible petrol shortages in the event of a strike, triggering needless panic, seemed to showcase managerial amateurism. Now plans to allow security services to eavesdrop on public emails and social media communications have brought the Conservatives’ libertarian tendency out in a frenzy. Backbench grumbling, on and off the record, has turned to aggressive sniping. The Tories have a reputation for keeping their ceremonial leader-slicing daggers close by at all times, so how dangerous is this insurrectionary mood for Cameron? Not very. At least, not for now.
There is, it must be said, a deep reservoir of resentment against the Conservative leader. It dates back to his failure on winning the job to show affection for or even interest in his own MPs. The team of “modernisers” who felt the need to transform the party in order to get it elected gave parliamentary veterans the impression that their old battle scars were an embarrassment and their campaign medals worthless. That did not go down well. But dissent was muted because the appetite for victory was so strong and Cameron looked like a plausible victor. By failing to win a majority, the Tory leader effectively reneged on an implicit deal with his party’s grumpy tendency. They do not feel bound to stay loyal.
But the 2010 election also brought in a large cohort of new Tory MPs who, regardless of whether or not they are ideologically Cameroon (if that isn’t an oxymoron), are less emotionally bound up in the old Wilderness Wars. Besides, there is plainly no one in the cabinet even close to rivalling the incumbent Prime Minister in terms of projecting the general air of a leader. Even Cameron’s enemies accept that the thing he does best is look the part. The backbench moaners do not have an alternative candidate in mind, they just want the existing leader to be something he isn’t: less aloof, more engaged in a red-blooded, supply-side-reforming, tax-cutting, red-tape slashing push for growth.
Often this irritation comes across as a complaint about class – Cameron the toff failing to understand the needs and preoccupations of the aspiring strivers; lions complaining about donkey leadership. As the Economist’s Bagehot columnist expertly dissected it last week c , class is indeed an element but it is mostly a proxy for other concerns. If Cameron had a way of kick-starting the economy and showing people that he sincerely grasps how tough their lives are, no one would care who his parents are or where he went to school.
Some of the chatter against Cameron and Osborne has centred on the Downing Street media operation. It is routinely observed that the departure of Andy Coulson as director of communications robbed the leadership of a close ally with an instinctive grasp of tabloid sensibilities. (That gripe conveniently ignores the fact that Coulson, as editor of the News of the World in its frenetic phone-hacking days, represented a political liability of epic proportions to the government.) There are complaints that Craig Oliver, Coulson’s replacement, is primarily interested in securing favourable-looking TV pictures of the PM and insufficiently sensitive to the peculiar, mischievous dynamics in the Lobby – the Westminster newspaper hack pack – that is often a primary motor driving the news agenda.
Even if there is some substance to these charges, the presentation issue is marginal to the more substantial questions of political judgement and managerial competence that plainly lie at the heart of the current mini-crisis. One important outcome has been the flushing out of discontent with George Osborne’s dual role as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Tory election strategist. Conservative MPs have started suggesting more openly that the twin pressures mean Osborne is doing neither job properly and should spend more time in the Treasury, less in Downing Street. There is also a feeling around in the party that Osborne is responsible for the “ultra-liberal” and “cosmopolitan” strains of reform that are now increasingly seen as a cul-de-sac for Tory modernisation. Even former Cameroons are starting to accept the argument, advanced relentlessly by ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie, that a mistake was made in thinking Cool Britannia-style metropolitan Blairism would decontaminate the brand. Pursuing that approach led to a dangerous neglect of working class and lower middle class voters (the famous “squeezed middle”) who were vital in building Margaret Thatcher’s electoral coalition.
These are questions of strategic emphasis more than personnel. No-one is seriously suggesting anyone other than Osborne should be Chancellor just as no-one in the Tory party really expects anyone other than Cameron to be Prime Minister. One thing is clear, however, from the current spate of discontent. The current leadership is operating with a very narrow margin for error. There are not great reserves of goodwill. That means that, when the time eventually comes for Cameron to fall – and all Prime Ministers do eventually – the end will be sudden, unsentimental and brutal.