by Kevin Meagher
Is he a “man or mouse” asked Tory MP Tim Yeo of his own leader and Prime Minister a couple of weeks ago, questioning whether David Cameron has the cojones to press ahead with a third runway at Heathrow.
“Mouse” seems to be the answer judging by how our beleaguered PM is weakly responding to attacks from his own side at the moment – both real and surreal.
This weekend we were treated to the frankly bizarre tale of Zac Goldsmith, the maverick nimby Tory MP for leafy Richmond Park, openly plotting to inveigle Boris Johnson back into the House of Commons by threatening to resign his seat and trigger a by-election if David Cameron ends up supporting that third runway.
Then there’s the tale of Tory backbencher Bob Stewart who admits he was approached by a couple of fellow MPs this summer to act as a “stalking horse” challenger against the Prime Minister – a modern day Sir Anthony Meyer.
Perhaps most significantly is a report yesterday by Gary Gibbon, political editor of Channel Four News. He reckons there is a “grouping” of Tory MPs that regularly meets “in the office of a Tory former minister and privy councillor” with the aim of one of its number becoming a “challenger” to Cameron, perhaps after next May’s local elections.
What’s going wrong? The prime minister’s troops – and indeed his officer class – are lining up to attack him in a way that would have been utterly unthinkable under any previous Tory Leader. We have clearly come a long way since Lord Kilmuir intoned that “loyalty is the Conservative Party’s secret weapon”.
But loyal to what? There is no sense that Cameron has spawned an age of hegemony in the way Thatcher or Blair both did. By dabbling across the ideological divide – a support for gay marriage here, a bash the welfare scroungers there, David Cameron ends up trusted by no-one.
And so unlike Mrs Thatcher, Cameron has no praetorian guard around him. This matters. The Cameroons seem a freeform and underwhelming lot with no animating sense of purpose that holds them together come hell or high water. Without a political bodyguard, an irreducible core of leadership loyalists, rank disloyalty has set in.
Just take the Boris Johnson problem and reapply the context to Cameron’s two immediate predecessors. The idea that a political rival outside parliament would plot the demise of Tony Blair or Gordon Brown semi-openly – without total and final retribution – is laughable. At the very least, both men would have killed off any chance of their enemy getting into parliament.
But it’s not just Boris. Justine Greening was demoted in last week’s reshuffle, shunted from transport to international development. The Mail on Sunday reported that she made her displeasure plain “shouting” at Cameron: “I didn’t come into politics to distribute money to people in the Third World!” His response should have been “take it or leave”.
At least Boris has a powerbase of sorts, with his pals in London media-land, Greening is a dull technocrat with no party clout; Cameron should be assured of her loyalty as she owes her place at the cabinet table entirely to him.
Things were never this bad for his predecessors – even for John Major. He may have had to contend with Eurosceptics like the redoubtable Teresa Gorman, but she would never have dared belittle him as an “arrogant posh boy” the way Nadine Dorries did to Cameron.
For all his puff-chested bravado at prime minister’s questions, David Cameron seems to have a chronic problem asserting his authority. Part of this is explained by the hand fate has dealt him. Having to navigate the constraints and ambiguities of coalition politics means not panicking at every setback, not responding to every sleight. Downing Street does not go into crisis mode every time things don’t work out as planned in a way it did under previous regimes. But there is still a need to show who’s in charge. To occasionally put some stick about.
Cameron should do three things. The first is to promise his new Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, one of the senior cabinet roles if he keeps the Tory troops in line for the next couple of years. If he’s half as ambitious as his detractors claim, then he won’t mind getting stuck in to some of the troublemakers if he’s guaranteed a big job at the end of it. Having a chief whip’s career umbilically linked to a prime minister’s is smart politics.
Similarly Cameron should make it clear to Zac Goldsmith and the cadre of under-employed dilettantes on his backbenches that serial disloyalty and plotting will result in withdrawal of the whip. Most of the fellow travellers will melt away at the thought of the political equivalent of a capital sentence. A few won’t and Cameron should be prepared to mount their heads on sticks as a warning to the rest.
Next, he needs to kill off his prince across the water once and for all. He should make it clear there is zero prospect – under any circumstances apart from the intervention of the grim reaper – of Boris not seeing out a full-term as London mayor. The financial cost of triggering a by-election is reason enough, but the likelihood of the Tories losing it, so close to the 2015 general election, represents a strategic disaster. Appealing past Boris to the party grassroots in that way would help put the ambitious mayor of London back in his box.
There comes a time in every premiership when a prime minister has to show that he or she is master of their own government. At the moment David Cameron gives every impression that he is not. Time, then, to reach for the big stick.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut