Cameron’s season of sorrows is not over yet
The black dog has descended on Whitehall. Tory ministers are, as a group, at their lowest ebb since they entered government. When I saw one secretary of state this week, he stopped halfway through our meeting to say, ‘I’m sorry this is such a depressing conversation’. He then continued in the same vein. Even the normally Tiggerish Prime Minister is in a bit of an Eeyoreish mood. I’m told that he seems more tired and down than at any point since he took on the job.
This funk is a result of a difficult few weeks for the government. Granny tax was followed by pastygate, which compounded the damage done by the fuel panic, which set the government up for a fall over charity tax. To top it all, the Office for National Statistics declared this week that the country is back in the recession. The double dip that Ed Balls has so often predicted has happened. As Claudius said, ‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.’
As if this were not enough, the Tory side of the coalition is entering a period of Leveson purgatory. Already, five hours of testimony from James Murdoch have obliterated Jeremy Hunt’s career prospects.A man once tipped as a future Tory leader is now reduced to trying desperately to hang on to his current job.
Day after day, Cameron will be reminded of one of his biggest mistakes, his decision to get too close to the Murdochs and News International. His personal ratings, already at their lowest since he became leader, will take another hit.
There are a few bright spots on the horizon. Boris Johnson still looks likely to hold on in London and the local elections results will probably not be an unmitigated triumph for Ed Miliband, who faces tricky battles in Cardiff and Glasgow as well as the capital. It is also expected that Tory reinforcements will arrive in No. 10 shortly. This will bolster an operation that is having to counter both coalition and civil service threats to the Cameron agenda. Then there is — as one friend of Cameron’s mischievously remarks — the delicious prospect of rejecting an application from Lord O’Donnell, the former Cabinet Secretary, to be the next governor of the Bank of England.
But these are overshadowed by the cloud that is Lords reform, an issue that could wreck the coalition. For Nick Clegg, it is his legacy project and his justification to
his party for going into coalition. But No. 10 is acutely aware that it is not a priority for the public and has the potential to be as toxic inside the Tory parliamentary party as Europe once was. When I put it to one Tory strategist that the issue was going to be a car crash, he testily replied, ‘We know that, but there’s no way to stop it.’
The Cameroons believe that they have to proceed with Lords reform, at least for now, because otherwise the Liberal Democrats won’t vote for the boundary changes. These changes are regarded by the Tory leadership as essential to their chances of winning a majority at the next election.
But this lack of enthusiasm for a Lords makeover has transmitted itself to the Tory
Lords reform has the potential to be as toxic inside the Tory parliamentary party as Europe once was parliamentary party and emboldened them in their opposition to reform. They know that Cameron is no zealot on this matter. His private view is that ‘if we ended up with a 20 per cent elected House of Lords and got deficit reduction, education reform and welfare reform, it wouldn’t be that bad, would it?’ Given these feeling, it is hardly likely the Prime Minister will cast its opponents into the outer darkness.
There are now about 120 Tory MPs flirting with rebellion over the issue. They know that if enough of them defy the whip then it can’t be a career-ending stand. This group-
ing spans the full spectrum of Tory opinion. Even the Cameron ultra-loyalist Nick Soames has told friends that he couldn’t vote for the draft bill.
Pleas from Tory high command for their MPs to swallow Lords reform for the good of the coalition are falling on deaf ears. When I put it to one rebel that No. 10 felt its hands were tied, he replied: ‘Nick Clegg has less power than they think he does.’ He pointed out that the Liberal Democrats were hardly going to want an election in the current political climate. He said that they ‘could be free of the issue with three words, “Fuck off Nick” ’. More seriously, Tory MPs feel they owe it to their successors to deny the Liberal Democrats a second chamber elected by a system of proportional representation that would leave the third party permanently holding the balance of power.
But the trouble Cameron faces over the Bill in the Commons is nothing compared to what will happen elsewhere. Already, their Lordships are preparing a guerrilla campaign against the coalition’s agenda until the bill is dropped. The Prime Minister could find his whole legislative programme being held hostage by this issue. Indeed, in the Upper House the bill is almost entirely friendless. Even most Liberal Democrat peers favour a referendum.
But we can be sure that the Lords Reform Bill will be the most significant measure in the Queen’s speech.At a Conservative political cabinet last week, there was a discussion of how best to make the party’s MPs accept the measure. But I’m told that none of the ideas suggested were considered particularly good.
Those close to Cameron are now wondering how to get out this Lords reform bind. One thought is that Clegg is obliged to lay the boundary review before parliament as soon as it is delivered to him. Some speculate that Cameron could continue with Lords reform until the Commons has voted the bill through, then drop it. But this would have a disastrous effect on intra-coalition relations.
All the troubles of the past few weeks will be as nothing compared to the challenge of squaring the circle on Lords reform. It is going to be the biggest test yet of Cameron’s coalition and his political skills.
‘Whose stupid idea was it to save sensibly for our old age?’
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the spectator | 28 april 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk