Whip’s notebook: We are witnessing the death throes of the Cameron modernisation project

by Jon Ashworth

I was a junior bag carrier in the in the dog days of the last Labour government. I remember too well the attempted coups; the sacked ministers seeking vengeance and the general air of resignation. My heart sank every time another MP in a marginal seat announced their retirement. Many of these MPs had been in the political frontline for 20 years plus and were no doubt genuine in wanting to move on but it inevitably of course contributed to a general sense we were in decline.

But this was a party which by 2010 had been in power for 13 long difficult years. Our Tory opponents were on their fourth leader and sixth shadow chancellor while the Lib Dems were on their fourth Leader too. By 2007 the Tory Party was spending huge amount of energy mimicking Labour election winning tactics in an effort to box off their deep seated weaknesses. So in a nod to Gordon Brown’s commitment in 1997 to match Ken Clarke’s overall spending levels, Osborne and Cameron made a similar pledge declaring support for every penny piece of Labour spending – not something they like to be reminded of now of course.

Fast forward to 2013 we are just over two and half years into David Cameron’s government. The Sunday Times this weekend informed us that an increasing number of backbenchers are privately discussing the possibility of attempting to unseat the prime minister before the poll in 2015 if the party continues to trail in the polls.

Meanwhile Labour MPs are enjoying the increasingly colourful outbursts from sacked ex-minister Tim Loughton who last week said of his former boss Michel Gove that,

“most officials have never met the secretary of state other than when he’ll troop out a few chosen people for the new year party, Mr Grace-like, tell us ‘you’ve all done very well’ then disappear. That’s no way to run an important department. It is terribly anachronistic, terribly bureaucratic, terribly formal.”

Tim Loughton does of course have form. Before the 2001 election he described William Hague as ‘baldy’ with a ‘funny’ voice. Perhaps Mr Gove didn’t appreciate a forthright robust minister in his team.

If matters aren’t bad enough for my opposite numbers in the Tory whips’ office last week and perhaps surprisingly a Welsh Conservative MP, Jonathan Evans of Cardiff North announced his plans to retire and not contest the next general election. Mr Evans in making his announcement said “By the time of the next election in 2015 I will have served for two decades in the House of Commons and in the European Parliament in Brussels”

I naturally have no doubt that Mr Evans simply feels it is time to hang up his boots but to more cynical types than me it won’t have gone unnoticed that he represents a key Labour target seat with a majority of merely 194.

On top of all this the Tory troops in the commons chamber seem to be deserting the battlefield. Take the recent debate on the benefits uprating bill – a political maneuver designed by a chancellor more interested in dividing lines than budget lines. I’m sure Osborne expected Conservative MPs to be full of confidence. And yet in the debate itself Tory MPs were far outnumber by Labour MPs colleagues.

In the whole debate a total of 49 Labour MPs spoke compared to just 33 Tories. Indeed towards the end of the debate Labour MP after Labour MP was called to speak because there was no one left on the Tory side. It was a similar story in the Queens Speech debates last year.

Of course the prime minister can always reshuffle his pack to win some new allies but reshuffles tend to create more enemies than friends in the long term. What’s more this prime minister isn’t exactly showing himself to be adept at managing his party. Take for example his recent interview in the excellent House magazine – a magazine sent every week to every single MP- where he name checks his favorite Tory ministers – Nick Boles, Liz Truss, Sajid Javid, Helen Grant, Jeremy Wright, Matt Hancock ­– mostly trendy Cameroon insiders.

But while the lucky six can feel blessed at being in the Cameron cool gang, the Prime Minister’s comments will only serve to foster resentment with all those other ministers left out.

Throw into all this the deep hostility to Europe that is so mainstream in the Tory party which Cameron is now desperate to satisfy and there is a real sense that the Cameron project looks increasingly tired and ragged.

Tory Party managers will tell themselves they just need to jump the next hurdle, turn the next corner, to keep on keeping on and that something will turn up.

But No 10 is fooling itself if they consider their problems to be just a set of temporary local difficulties. Something bigger is going on. With two and a half years of the Parliament to go we are witnessing the death throes of the Cameron modernising project. Europe is simply the latest nail in the coffin.

For David Cameron and George Osborne the big prize was overturning public perceptions of the Tories. And what has become of the exemplars of the Cameron modernisation project? Remember how they insisted they could be trusted on the NHS; that “we are all in this together,” and that a Cameron Conservative party would no longer bang on about Europe?

All have been abandoned and all that is left is the same old Tories.

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South and an opposition whip

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