by Kevin Meagher
Last weekend, the Sunday Times ran a fairly extraordinary piece speculating that the pin-striped vultures of the Tory backbenches were eyeing up David Cameron’s carcass:
“For the first time, discussions about ousting Cameron before 2015 appear to be spreading beyond the so-called “usual suspects” – a hardcore of about 20 backbenchers who are hostile to his leadership.”
Europe and gay marriage are cited as concerns. There is also talk of a “rebel reserve” of “about 55” who would write to the backbench 1922 committee chairman, Graham Brady, demanding Cameron quits if the polls look so desperate that a change of leader becomes “urgent.”
Of course it’s not unusual for prime ministers to develop a cabal of detractors. On the way up, most senior politicians rub enough people up the wrong way to do that; but to learn that Cameron now has a nucleus of twenty hostiles against him, with dozens of “conditional enemies” is still significant.
Most obviously it seems Cameron simply isn’t conservative enough for many of his party’s faith and flag crowd. While Europe remains a celice truer Conservatives choose to punish themselves with, it is Cameron’s personal advocacy of gay marriage which is said to be the focal point for much of the current grumbling; percolating up from his party’s grassroots and through to his MPs. To them, he is a typical metro-liberal wet.
On the other hand though, Cameron is a son of privilege who doesn’t really gel with those earthier, cash-toting arriviste Tories either, the ones who had to buy their own furniture. Remember when Michael Howard said he was a grammar school boy who would take no lessons from public school-educated Tony Blair? It’s not a boast many on the Tory frontbench could make now. Nevertheless representing smart, hard-working people who have made their own money is an important part of the post-war Conservative identity.
Nadine Dorries, an embodiment of it, scored a memorable direct hit when she said Cameron and Osborne were “arrogant posh boys” who didn’t know the price of milk. To detractors like her, Cameron thinks social mobility is a chauffeur-driven Bentley taking him to the winter ball.
But Cameron not only walks the faultline between these two distinct brands of Conservatism – neither of which he has an instinctive affinity for – he also traverses the magma-spewing crevice between his party and the Lib Dems too.
Perhaps his lack of definition helps him understand – and embrace – the ambiguities of coalition government in a way few others in his party do? He seems to intuitively understand that he can’t have everything his own way. He has to consider not only his own backbenchers but Nick Clegg’s as well. There aren’t many leaders temperamentally suited to doing this.
Indeed, it’s easy to criticise him for doing so. The parliamentary boundary review is a case in point. It never made much electoral difference to the Lib Dems to back it, but it would have brought the Tories twenty seats or so nearer to an overall majority. But Tory disinterest in Nick Clegg’s House of Lords reform package last year means, quid pro quo, no boundary review. Tory teeth may gnash at this – and they clearly do – but Cameron understands life in the coalition is a game of give and take and moves on: Tactical defeats are taken in pursuit of more strategic goals.
This is why, to his internal opponents, he sometimes looks weak and vacillating. But no-one in British politics knows how to run a coalition. There is no manual. Cameron and Clegg actually deserve some grudging respect for crossing the halfway point of this parliament, a feat Labour’s many armchair generals thought impossible back in 2010, as they casually assumed this chimera of a government would not see out the year.
It’s just possible Cameron personifies a new style of post-tribal politics which we may see much more of in years to come; bold in intent but pragmatic too; less neurotic and more relaxed about reversals. Not as controlling and more open and willing to work with others. This may be why opinion polls have him ten points clear when the public is asked which party leader makes the best prime minister.
So back to the question in hand: How serious are these mutterings about his leadership? Well it wouldn’t be the Tory party if there were not active plots against their leader. (Indeed, it’s a moot point whether plotting provides an essential raison d’être for the party’s many dining groups). But there is a gap between piling up a couple of dozen irreconcilables who just don’t get it and carrying the critical mass of what is a relatively fresh cadre of MPs, nearly half of which entered parliament for the first time in 2010 and may be a tad squeamish about regicide.
Cameron’s embodiment of the current political moment keeps him safe for now. His critics may plot and sneer – and they will – but they will fail to find the numbers unless they first find that special moment needed to kill a king. Disappointing county council results or a botched roll-out of the universal credit somehow don’t seem momentous enough.
In the meantime Cameron, a new breed of political leader, will keep making it up as he goes along.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut