How Boris could rescue Dave
Downing Street is, in the words of one senior aide, in a mood of ‘sober reflection’ about how and why so many things have gone wrong in the past fortnight. The question now is whether the government can expect more of the same for the rest of the year. The answer will turn on two elections in May, the contest for the London mayoralty and the one to choose the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers.
Even those in No. 10 who most dislike Boris Johnson know that his re-election is crucial to their prospects. A Boris triumph would make the last few weeks seem like a blip rather than a permanent shift in the political landscape.
If Labour can’t take the capital, there’ll be a fresh bout of speculation about Ed Miliband’s leadership. Cameron will be able to argue that victory in London shows that the Tories are on course to be in government again after the next election. If Labour wins, on the other hand, the pressure will be off Miliband, and Cameron will begin to look like a one-term prime minister.
In Tory circles, there is mounting confidence that Boris will hold on. Last Friday, Lynton Crosby, Boris’s campaign director, addressed Tory aides in Downing Street. It was, by all accounts, an impressive presentation — one that left several suggesting that Crosby should brought in to run the Conservatives’ political operation. It has left the Tories confident that the Boris campaign will keep Ken Livingstone on the back foot and added to the sense that if the Tories can get their vote out, victory will be theirs.
The irony, as the Miliband camp is quick to point out, is that if the vote in London were a straight referendum on the government, the Tories would — according to the polls — lose. But Ken is a weak candidate and Boris can reach parts of the electorate that other Tories can’t.
After the mayoral election, the 1922 Committee might seem like small beer. But the events of the past few weeks have given the selection of its members a particular significance: for this will answer the question of who speaks for the Tory backbenches.
Loyalist MPs are furious that Cameron’s backbench critics, several of whom are on the executive of the ’22, are claiming that they are the true voice of the parliamentary party. They fume that the malcontents are a small number of opportunistic egotists driven by ignoble motives; their hatred of the
Prime Minister and addiction to publicity. The argument about the true nature of the parliamentary party will be settled by the 1922 Committee elections. Those MPs who claim to represent the ‘silent majority’ are planning to cleanse the ’22 of, what they call with some justification, ‘the wreckers’.
But this will be, if there can be such a thing, an inclusive purge. There will be no challenge to the chairman Graham Brady, the vice-chairman Charles Walker or the treasurer Brian Binley, despite all of them having been part of the EU referendum rebellion.
The logic behind this decision is that they have been constructive — not destructive —
Loyalist MPs fume that the party’s malcontents are driven by hatred of the PM and addiction to publicity critics of the leadership. Leaving them alone is also meant to demonstrate that the leadership’s aim is not to neuter the 1922 Committee but to rid it of fringe elements who use their position as a platform from which to attack the Prime Minister.
But these elections are fast turning into a census of the parliamentary party. Every vote that, for instance, the arch-rebel Christopher Chope receives will be a sign of an MP dissatisfied with Cameron’s leadership.
The crucial question is how many ‘wreckers’ there are and how much support they have. Those who know the parliamentary party well think that there is a hard core of a dozen who will oppose almost everything that Cameron does, with 30 others prepared to join forces with them on certain issues.
These numbers matter because they inform how Cameron and his allies think about achieving a Tory majority. There are those close to the Prime Minister who fear the consequences of the Tories winning a small overall majority at the next election. Their worry is that the David Davises and Mark Pritchards of this world would hold them to ransom. It would be John Major and the 1992 parliament all over again.
One confidant of the Prime Minister says that ‘the last week makes you think that a small Tory majority would be impossible’. Indeed, the more the Tory malcontents attack him, the more likely Cameron is to stay closer to Clegg for fear of something worse.
Set against this has to be the Cameroons’ irritation at the constraints of coalition. Cameron knows that to break through with the electorate he has to talk in terms of values. But he also knows that coalition makes that much harder.
No. 10 is readying what it is calling a ‘Conservative values-based agenda’. This will include measures to help families, boost enterprise and promote ‘real fairness’. One part of the fairness agenda is that those on welfare should have to make the same choices as those in work. As part of this, the coalition is considering making young unemployed adults continue to live with their parents by further restricting their entitlement to housing benefit.
The other change in Downing Street concerns Cameron’s own attitude to the job. He is, not before time, moving from being a chairman to a chief executive and is holding a string of meetings to ensure that government policies are being implemented.As one close ally rather crudely puts it, ‘There’ll be a lot more arse-kicking from now on.’
Interestingly, Cameron seems to be changing his attitude to the civil service. Until recently, he has regarded it as untouchable. But his frustrations with the decisionmaking process during the fuel panic appear to have opened his eyes to its institutional failings. It seems likely that the coalition’s reform plans, due out next month, will be far more radical than expected.
The last fortnight has been a reminder of how quickly politics can turn. But if Cameron learns the right lessons from this experience, then it could turn out to have been the shock to the system that he needed. Far better to realise now what he needs to change than in 2014.
‘I had to sell the car to buy the jerry cans.’
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the spectator | 7 april 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk Charles Moore
It is interesting that David Cameron sends out an Easter message each year. Such a thing is a symptom of the decline of Christianity. When Britain was a Christian country, no prime minister would have thought it necessary (or proper) to speak urbi et orbi. Today, Easter takes its place alongside Eid, Diwali, Rosh Hashanah, Gay Pride etc as a day for which No. 10 issues public blessing. Mr Cameron is at pains, however, to speak of Christians as ‘we’ and to remind everyone that the nation has ‘an established faith [the more accurate word ‘Church’ is avoided] that together is most content when we are defined by what we are for, rather than defined by what we are against.’ This is an excellently Anglican way of looking at things, and I am sure Mr Cameron is sincere. But it is also his positioning for when he tries to introduce homosexual marriage — ‘I am for it,’ he is implying, ‘you are against it. Therefore my approach is more Christian than yours.’
The Prime Minister is right that Christians should not waste all their energies opposing things, but he does not realise how difficult he is making it for them to follow his rule. Most past reforms in relation to homosexuality — decriminalisation, age of consent, even civil partnerships — may or not be opposed by Christians but they are not central to any religious understanding of society. Gay marriage is different, because it is not merely a matter of extending rights to minorities. It is the abolition of the idea — central to civilisation throughout history — that marriage is for a man and a woman. It is a profound redefinition for which there is no direct warrant in any mainstream religious teaching ever. Marriage is a social institution, not a private one, and so Christians cannot simply say, ‘You do what you like and we’ll do what we like’: their concept of marriage is inextricable from their view of society. For this reason, they would be bound to oppose polygamy, and the argument against gay marriage is equally strong. The secularist retort is ‘Stuff you, why should you decide?’ and it is one that has some force in modern circumstances. But this is not Mr Cameron’s line. He loves the via media and said this week that he opposes secularism, yet he has made himself the prisoner of the secular dogmatists.
In the eirenic spirit of Easter, however, I must offer an apology to Mr Cameron’s party leadership. In my column in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, I attacked the private party line about the tanker drivers’ dispute. This was that the stockpiling of petrol would be the government’s ‘Thatcher moment’, like her stockpiling coal for the miners’ strike. I summarised this message in inverted commas, thinking it was clear from the context that this was not a real quotation, but the gist. I was rather surprised on Saturday to be rung up by lots of television stations asking me to appear, but it was a beautiful day in the country so I refused their requests without asking what they were on about. It turned out that some people thought I had disclosed a terrible ‘secret document’, when all I had actually done was to report the line that was being used by MPs in their constituencies. All hell broke loose. Since I was attacking Francis Maude for careless talk, I should have been more careful with my own.
By chance, it was in the middle of the numerous political fiascos of last week that I was interviewed by a highly intelligent Japanese journalist. Why was it, he wanted to know, that in Britain, politicians told the truth in public, made bold decisions and did not go into the trade for the money? He particularly singled out Mr Cameron and George Osborne for praise. It was inconceivable, he told me, that their Japanese equivalents would have spoken so openly about economic problems and been so determined to deal with government debt. It was marvellous that we had a tradition of parliamentary disagreement, fostered by debate and independent thinking at our best schools and universities. His attitude was very striking. Normally, when we seek the gift to see ourselves as others see us, it is in order to understand our faults, but in this case it could help us recognise our national virtues.
Disagreement is seen differently on the Continent. In Paris recently, I interviewed Jean-Claude Trichet, the former President of the European Central Bank. M.Trichet is very correct, and so we did not discuss politics at all. Nevertheless, it was thanks to him that I realised just how unimportant it is whether Nicholas Sarkozy or François Hollande wins the French presidential election next month. The euro, in whose history M.Trichet has played such an important part, is part of an imperium and a belief system. For him, the lesson of its travails is that ‘we need to go further’ towards economic, fiscal and political union. No eurozone leader is permitted to question this (look at the fate of Berlusconi). Each is allowed, for electoral purposes, to protest about bad deals that his country is getting from their EU partners, and on these grounds Sarkozy and Hollande can scrap, but their real differences are trivial. Perhaps this compulsory unanimity will give Europe the strength to hold together — this has happened before, after all, in the face of crises. But the danger is that the eurozone becomes like the Warsaw Pact, an organisation dedicated to not recognising the truth, and so, when the truth finally intrudes, it collapses.
My sister Charlotte, like all decent people, has difficulties being ‘emotionally literate’ in the manner now required. So it was a surprise to see her dabbing her eyes on The Lorraine Show on breakfast television last week after a film of her autistic sons, George and Sam, was shown as a prelude to an item on her book about them. ‘Oh, Charlotte,’ said the delighted interviewer, ‘this must be so moving for you.’ ‘No,’ explained Charlotte, ‘it’s just that I’m not used to wearing so much make-up at this time in the morning.’
the spectator | 7 april 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk