IT IS hard to believe now, but there was once a time when a party political leader would be expected to stay in post even after a heavy defeat.
That was certainly true of Neil Kinnock who was hammered at the polls in 1987 and then went on to lead Labour to another defeat in 1992 without a challenge. Harold Wilson survived defeat in the 1970s and it took two defeats and an ideological split in the Tories for Ted Heath to be challenged by Margaret Thatcher.
He is seen as too pro-European, only promising a referendum when forced to and then making it clear he would campaign to stay in the EU.
But now it seems that even victory may not be enough to guarantee a politician’s place at the head of his or her party. This is why, over the weekend, senior figures in the Tories were attempting to shore up David Cameron’s position and warn against a leadership challenge, amid speculation that it could happen even if he wins in May.
The prospect of a challenge could be dismissed easily as idle speculation, but doing that would be to underestimate the extraordinary level of antipathy many Tory back-benchers and ordinary party members – or at least those still in the party – feel towards the Prime Minister.
The reasons for the dislike are well documented. He is seen as too pro-European, only promising a referendum when forced to and then making it clear he would campaign to stay in the EU.
He is also seen as too much of a “nanny state” liberal, in favour of gay marriage and supporting issues such as plain packaging of cigarettes.
The concerns were rather underlined recently when the Conservative Grassroots organisation, which wants the party to return to core values, commissioned a poll that showed the Tory target audience wanted the party to return to its traditional roots. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the poll was “suppressed” by the party leadership, which is said to have leaned on Conservative Grassroots not to publish because it would “open a can of worms”.
The organisation’s chairman resigned in protest, writing a bitter letter. “The final straw came when it became clear that at least one member of our committee had been leaned on by senior members of the party to censor our letters, and sanitise our publications and press statements,” he said.
He added: “While I personally remain a committed Conservative and want to see a Conservative majority government, suppressing the mildest of criticism that urges Mr Cameron to return to more authentic or traditional policies instead of so-called progressive left-wing nonsense, like putting windmills on houses or riding huskies, is no way to do this.”
Therein lies Mr Cameron’s problem. He still feels he needs to modernise to win over the country, but in doing so he is increasing the prospects of his own party ousting him.
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