This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics
David Cameron is battling to regain control of his battered premiership – but he’s also grappling with two wings of his party who want to march in different directions.
Pundits often forget that prime ministers are also leaders of their own parties. Government success translates into a happy party where even rebels take a vow of silence as they bask in reflected glory. Everyone likes to be in power – a glance at Tony Blair’s record shows that for a few years, even Dennis Skinner was a Blairite.
But the reverse is also true. Cameron’s problems in government – largely created by the pressures of a forced marriage with the Lib Dems – are magnified in the ranks of his own party. Or so the small number of loud voices from his backbenches − Peter Bone, Nadine Dorries, Brian Binley – would have you believe.
Cameron, like all prime ministers, is finding it hard to remain in touch with his party. All parties are broad churches, but the modern Conservatives are especially so. Keeping all MPs happy is an impossible quest.
The old guard who were in opposition through the Blair years were seen by many Cameroons to have failed. They were unable to win a general election or write a script that appealed to the nation. Why, then, should those around Cameron pay heed to their calls for action? They frequently pop up on TV or in the newspapers, giving the impression of a huge gulf between the party’s head and its body.
But their voices are massively disproportionate. The bulk of Conservative MPs don’t feel this way – and change is coming. Elections to the once-mighty 1922 backbench committee could change this dynamic for good.
Scores of new-intake MPs see themselves as pretty loyal Cameroons. And the 301 group is planned its own assault on the old guard’s agenda, wanting to oust the “bloody rude” old guard from the executive of the ‘22.
Individuals like George Hollingbery, Kris Hopkins, Charlie Elphicke, Laura Sandys, Jessica Lee, Damian Collins and Dan Poulter want change.
They are pushing at an open door. The PM acknowledges that he neglected his relationship with his party at the start of government, yet there is still no one at the heart of No10 and Team Cameron whose role it is to nurture the troops in Westminster. This mistake must be addressed.
The PM implores ministers and PPSs to make sure they’re inviting backbenchers into departments, but he knows more must be done to build ties and to listen to the concerns of a number of smart prospects for the future. They’re broadly loyal, but are prepared to rebel on occasion to help
them in marginal seats.
Some of those 301 group MPs need to be pragmatic. They were elected in marginal seats on a centre ground chosen by Cameron in 2010. The old guard, with their mammoth majorities of 10,000 plus, would do well to remember this.
Labour MPs are targeting these newbies – people like Lee with a majority of 2,500 and Anna Soubry who has a margin of just 389 votes. To them, success comes from greater commitment to the NHS and education, and more policies designed to please the crucial BME and women voters.
Cameron has made serious inroads on the task of keeping his party on board by always meeting groups of backbenchers in the Commons after Wednesday’s PMQs, and regularly holding drinks receptions for them in No10. Some even get invited to Chequers for lunch or supper.
Those around the premier say he’s keen to go even further, as eyes become more focused on the next general election. Three years may seem a long time, but the cycle is ruthless, and being in coalition means a huge drain on the PM’s chances of pleasing his party the whole time.
The mid-term slump was as inevitable as night follows day, and to many in No10 – especially George Osborne – the only wonder is that it didn’t hit the coalition sooner.
Previous Conservative leaders have hit the sloughs of despair in the past and gone on to win where it really matters – at the next general election.
The Conservatives hit 28 per cent during the 1987-92 Parliament, 24 per cent between 1983 and 1987, and before that Thatcher had to contend with just 23 per cent support in the polls during her first term.
A quick study of the bills introduced by Cameron is worth doing to remember that the PM doesn’t always side with Nick Clegg. Benefits have been capped, teachers given power to discipline yob pupils, a military covenant has been enshrined in law, council tax frozen, and the Right to Buy is back.
One aide to the PM says: “These are the achievements of which any Tory of any description should be dead proud.”
George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications