Allan Massie: Why Boris can afford to play a waiting game
After the triumphant summer of sport, London’s mayor is riding a wave of popularity, but it’s not time for a leadership challenge, writes Allan Massie
We ARE not quite halfway through this parliament and the terriers of the Tory Right are snapping at the Prime Minister’s heels. The party was ten points behind Labour in a recent poll. David Cameron’s closest colleague, George Osborne, was booed when he was presenting medals at the Paralympics. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who makes no secret of his desire to be Tory leader, is in ebullient form after the success of the Games and his name is chanted approvingly by huge crowds. He may – for the moment anyway – be that rarity, a truly popular Tory, representative of a species thought to be extinct.
Meanwhile, back in the Badlands, otherwise known as the lobbies and bars of the Palace of Westminster, discontent is rife. There is talk of a leadership challenge. Admittedly, Colonel Bob Stewart, invited to be a stalking-horse candidate, sent his wooers away with a brisk refusal. He is loyal to the Prime Minister and believes that loyalty is required of Members of Parliament and the party in the constituencies.
Loyalty, however, is a concept with which the Tories have been unfamiliar for a long time. David Maxwell-Fyfe (Lord Kilmuir), a minister in the Churchill, Eden and Macmillan governments, once said loyalty was the Tory party’s “secret weapon”. He soon learned it wasn’t, when Macmillan sacked him in his celebrated “Night of the Long Knives”. More recently, any Tory repeating this phrase is either a fool or an ironist. Not a single Tory leader since his day has been able to rely on the loyalty of the troops.
Boris Johnson is the Man on the White Horse, or the King over the Water, whichever you prefer. He has two great advantages: his personality and the fact that he is not a member of the stumbling and unpopular coalition. He also enjoys a high profile as mayor of London, a post which gives him very little power but plenty of opportunities to strut in the limelight. Like his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, he knows how to make the best of his opportunities and revels in self-promotion.
For the moment, however, he can make trouble for Cameron, but no more than that. He is trapped in his present job. He is not in the Commons, and he has promised to serve his full term as mayor. That takes him to 2016, beyond the lifetime of this parliament. Paradoxically, therefore, it is not in his interest that someone unseats Cameron now. He can afford to wait, and for the moment Cameron can afford to disregard him.
Danger lurks in the Commons, not in the mayor’s office. We are not yet in for a rerun of 1995, when John Redwood launched a leadership challenge to the prime minister, John Major, a challenge which Major survived with his precarious authority still further weakened. Yet, unless things begin to look up for Cameron and the party – something which would surely require a marked improvement in the economy – we may see an attempt to unseat him next year. The most credible challenger would be David Davis, whom Cameron defeated in the last leadership election. Now he looms dangerously on the back-benches, a favourite of the party’s right wing, and also, more importantly, from a background that is very different from Cameron’s privileged one.
Many Tories have not forgiven Cameron for failing to win an overall majority in the last general election – though, in truth, given the huge Labour majority in the 2005 Parliament, it was a considerable achievement to be the biggest party in the new House of Commons. The Right, as revealed by its new pressure group, Conservative Voice, continues to believe there is an appetite for what they call “true Tory policies” and is convinced that a Commons majority can be obtained only by winning back Tory voters who have decamped to Ukip. This belief represents a triumph of ideological optimism over experience. They refuse to admit that any success in winning back defectors from Ukip will be balanced by defections in the left-centre ground.
These right-wing Tories remain fixated by Margaret Thatcher’s three election victories. They remember the triumphs, but forget the circumstances. In 1979 the Tories defeated an unpopular Labour government which had already lost its narrow majority in the Commons and had been dependent on support from the Liberals and the SNP to continue to govern. By 1983, Labour had split, with Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Shirley Williams going off to form the SDP (Social Democratic Party). The Labour leader, Michael Foot, did not look a credible prime minister, and Mrs Thatcher was boosted by the Falklands triumph. 1987 still saw a divided opposition, with the Liberals and the SDP coming together to form the Alliance, and a new Labour leader. Neil Kinnock, who was little more convincing than Michael Foot. In none of these elections was Margaret Thatcher faced with an Opposition that looked capable of governing. She had a lot of luck; yet never came near to securing a majority of votes cast. Actually, John Major, a centrist Tory, got more votes in 1992 than Thatcher every did.
Much in the country and society has of course changed since the Eighties and Nineties. But one thing hasn’t changed. There is no natural Tory majority in the UK; there is not even a natural Tory majority in England. To win an election, the Tories have to broaden their appeal and win the votes of people who may not be their natural supporters. Cameron realises this – which is why he was happy to go into coalition with the Lib Dems. His critics – or rather his enemies in the party – don’t, which is why they hate the coalition.
Their discontent may fester to such an extent that open rebellion breaks out and Cameron is replaced. If this happens, Ed Miliband will be preparing to take office as prime minister. That would the moment for Boris to swap municipal for national politics. Boris and Cameron have one thing in common. Both know that appealing only to the true believers is a recipe for losing elections. By winning London, Boris has shown he can cross the barrier and appeal to those who are not natural Tories. But he can’t break out of the mayor’s office without breaking his word. So it is in his interest that Cameron holds on – for now anyway.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 10 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east