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10 February 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 5:00am

How to throw the Tory right a bone

On prisoners, Ken Clarke and . . . Vince Cable.

By Christopher Montgomery

It’s not hard to find the 22 bravest men and women in British politics tonight. Wrong, lunatic, in some cases, and ideologically bigoted they may mostly be, but the MPs who voted against “rosettes for rapists” this evening are nothing if not courageous.

In the real world beyond Jeremy Corbyn, Simon Hughes and Peter Bottomley, it was superb politics by David Davis and Jack Straw to bring both their respective front benches to this equally unwelcome, equally abstained-on moment. Though, as Davis knows full well, it’s opened an issue that’s going to keep on hurting the government much more than the opposition.

Pro-Cameron Tories had until today been sneering that we’re only in this mess because of just one more Labour dodge, it being five years of official foot-dragging since the original prisoner voting rights ruling went against the UK. Yet, as the unfortunate Dominic Grieve laid the ground for today, it’s clear that we’re going to have more of the same.

If Cameron can scuttle away from implementing the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights until at least the next election, that will evidently be good enough for him. He has no other choice, as no government led by him is ever going to abrogate the ECHR. The last prime minister to complain a suggested policy might make him ill was John Major, whose stomach infamously turned at the very idea that his government might secretly negotiate with the Provos. No matter how nauseous David Cameron claims to be feeling today at the situation Labour has left the government in, we can be sure that just as John Major was in fact talking to the IRA even as he denied it, No 10’s goal is more of what Gordon did. Or didn’t do, in this case.

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Backbench Tory MPs vented happily today in front of both their constituents and the Prime Minister. But however unhappy many of them undoubtedly are, they’re not quite ready yet to direct their anger at its source rather than its symptoms, hence displacement activity like this vote, rather than any open rage against Cameron himself.

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But all the signs are there for the Prime Minister to see. Which usually means it’s time for lesser cabinet members to worry, “So who’s for the chop first?”

If it was on their record in office thus far, Michael Gove and Francis Maude would soon be spending more time with their families, but as they’re among the half-dozen or so true supporters Cameron has around the cabinet table they’re going nowhere. The three obvious sackings to appease backbenchers are Vince Cable, Ken Clarke and the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. The latter was much briefed against in opposition by Cameron intimates like Gove, nominally on the grounds that Grieve didn’t fear the coming of the universal Caliphate enough, but essentially because he’s an honest man and an easy victim.

Grieve believes that if we’ve signed up to something like a law or a treaty, we should implement it or get rid of it. This old-school thinking isn’t anywhere near creative enough for the Cameron tendency in British public life. At the moment, the Attorney’s being set up as a fall guy for the ECHR fiasco, and getting rid of him would have the merit for No 10 of looking like action while actually doing nothing tricky or difficult about, for instance, ongoing British adherence to the ECHR.

Kept in the shadow cabinet in a panic by Cameron after Davis’s departure, then demoted from shadow home to shadow justice secretary, then down to being just Attorney General after the coalition was formed, Grieve’s a sacrifice walking.

Far more bluster has been offered by Ken Clarke in defence of submitting to the ECHR, but you have to suspect his time isn’t ripe yet. There was no pressing political need for Cameron to bring Clarke back into front-line politics in the last parliament: he had no sizeable backing in the Commons, or the party at large, and even his media constituency had fallen off after a third and final leadership election defeat.

And so, the suspicion for some has always been that he’s only in the cabinet pending the day it is expedient to throw him as a bone to the disgruntled right. We’re nowhere near that point, which leaves us with the fate of Vince Cable.

Matthew Oakeshott’s impressively brutal sacking by Clegg might suggest that his patron, Vince Cable (the cabinet’s second oldest member, after Clarke), is in trouble. Certainly Tory MPs are hearing lots of talk about Andrew Mitchell replacing him as Business Secretary, but he’s still a lot more likely than Grieve to stay sitting at the cabinet table in some capacity or other.

A weakened ministerial Cable has to be much more attractive to Clegg than an emboldened one on the Liberal back benches, especially with the near-certainty of an AV No vote and everything that that will mean for the Liberals. In case it helps, think what it was like for Labour after socialism died, but having that fact handed to you by the public in one overnight count, rather than after 70 years of will-it-won’t-it failure.

Then there’s the fact that Cable’s behaviour as regards Rupert Murdoch and the Sky bid looks a lot less jejune after the revelation that Cameron secretly – and recklessly – bowed the knee to James Murdoch just days after the Business Secretary’s rashness was exposed. Though most importantly, if least discussed, is the truth that whether or not Cable goes is, in the context of a coalition, entirely Clegg’s call: his fate is out of Cameron’s hands, because Cameron can’t determine who’ll sit with him at the cabinet. And Clegg surely can’t be stupid enough to martyr his most potent possible rival before any chance of any form of PR is lost on his watch?

Cameron’s problems are still petty compared to Clegg’s and the odds on his still being Lib Dem leader at the end of the year are still far, far too generous. Whatever bones are thrown to the Tory right in the next reshuffle are as nothing compared to the nut cutlets Lib Dem MPs are going to need after May. Losing a God, in the shape of the AV referendum, will be bad enough, but the decimation of Lib Dem councillors will be even worse.

There are going to be a lot of hurt, angry, local government salary-deprived Liberals this summer. In democratic contrast to the Westminster-centric Tory and Labour parliamentary parties, Liberal MPs even know the names of their local councillors. And unlike prisoners, Lib Dem activists have the vote and know how to use it.