THE stalking horse is an equine breed that only seems to be seen in political environments, and then only when the leader of the day is so weak he or she can’t keep the animal locked up in the stable.
Margaret Thatcher was supposed to be a stalking horse when she managed to oust Ted Heath as leader of the Tories but instead won by several lengths. She herself had to face a stalking horse, Sir Anthony Meyer, a year before the Iron Lady was removed by her own MPs.
Since then, despite rumours of the breed making appearances again, there have been no sightings until apparently at the weekend, when it was suggested that Windsor MP Adam Afriyie may be about to be the elusive beast, preparing to challenge David Cameron.
Mr Afriyie is said to have choked on his oats, or whatever he was eating for breakfast, when he read the reports of his alleged intentions, which he immediately denied. However, even talk of a stalking horse is a sign that a leader is in deep trouble.
Reasons for this include the possible triple-dip recession looming, a feeling that there is an elite set of old Etonians running the party and the country, U-turns on almost everything and a modernisation agenda including support for gay marriage which is driving party members away in their droves.
Most of all, many Tories are not convinced the Prime Minister can lead them to victory and regard Labour’s poll lead with a growing feeling of pessimism and despair. Strangely, it is this fact that appears to make most advisors around Downing Street feel happiest .
Downing Street sources point to two facts which suggest that a victory in 2015 is still well within their grasp, despite the years of austerity. First, Mr Cameron’s ratings are consistently better than those of the Labour leader Ed Miliband.
The three YouGov polls this year highlight this, although is a question of who is less bad. Mr Cameron’s rating was -19, -18 and -14, actually not bad at all for a sitting Prime Minister. However, Mr Miliband has ratings of -23, -20 and -22.
Then there are the Conservative mid-term ratings which average 31.5 per cent in the last 25 polls and range between 27 and 34 points. Tories argue that it is rare for a governing party, particularly one having to make some very unpopular decisions, to be consistently polling in the 30s. You have to remember they just got 37 per cent in the 2010 election.
The last ICM poll interestingly saw the Labour lead drop to just five points. Maybe a blip, but evidence of a fear several senior Labour figures have privately expressed that their lead is soft, based on nothing positive but a negative reaction to the coalition.
So while the Tory discontents on the backbenches may be planning a plot against a man they think could be a loser, the evidence suggests that he may still be first past the post.