He had just returned from Brussels where, after another all-nighter with his fellow EU leaders, he had successfully argued that the European budget should be cut for the first time ever. That followed the historic vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday night when Cameron had walked his modernising talk by pushing through the vote to legalise same-sex marriage. In between came a statement to the House on the Mid-Staffordshire hospital scandal when the Prime Minister had, in most observers’ eyes, struck exactly the right form of frank humility for the occasion, offering an abject apology to victims in the process. Coming on the back of his speech two weeks ago, pledging an in-out referendum on EU membership, the least he might have thought is that his party would award him a gentle pat on the back as he kicked off his shoes and looked forward to the weekend. And yet much of his party is mad as hell.
The flashpoint last week was the same-sex marriage vote – pushed through despite opposition from almost half of all Conservative MPs. It triggered a quiet but significant ruction in the party. In one local constituency association in Scotland, half a dozen membership cards were handed back in by members who decided they were resigning over the matter. Another MSP noted how several supporters had rung up his local constituency office to declare they were never voting Conservative again. Reports south of the Border are far worse – one suggested the party’s 130,000 strong membership may have shedded around 10 per cent last week alone.
Much of this might be dismissed at first sight as a last protest from a dying generation whose views on homosexuality are out of kilter with the modern age. That would be the case if it were just about same-sex marriage. But the discontent within the Conservative movement seems to go deeper – and in this case, not just over the same-sex marriage plans, but over the the way it was done. And at the centre of the storm is Cameron. In a significant article in the Spectator magazine mid-week, Tory commentator Bruce Anderson summed it up. Anderson was the first journalist to pick out Cameron as a potential prime minister and has long been an ardent admirer of his abilities. But in his column, he declared: “Even in Mrs Thatcher’s worst travails, she retained one advantage. Millions of middle-class voters felt that she was on their side: that she understood them. Few people feel that about David Cameron. He has won respect but little affection, even in his own party. Nor does he try to elicit it.”
For many on the outside of the political village, the strange antipathy towards a leader who consistently polls higher than his party may appear misplaced and bizarre. Labour MPs openly concede that Cameron is their opponent’s best asset. But the same-sex gay marriage move now runs the risk of becoming a totem around which growing disgruntlement with the Cameron project will gather. Victorious in Europe last week he may have been, but the question now is whether the Prime Minister is facing ejection on his own doorstep.
Speaking to activists, a dangerous fatalism is seeping into the party rank-and-file. Not yet three years into government, it appears that the trials of running the country at a time of austerity is already taking its toll on morale. “Who is the only leader in the world who has got back in since austerity began?” asks one. “Obama. That’s it.” Every other political leader across Europe has fallen, they note. Obama only managed to cling on, says the Tory, because he “told people he was going to protect them.” But that option, putting it mildly, does not seem open to the Tories right now.
Under George Osborne’s Plan A, formulated by the then shadow chancellor prior to the 2010 election, an incoming Conservative government would lead the nation on a three-year long diet, purging it of its debilitating deficit before – by about now – rewarding a grateful people with a cake-tray’s worth of tax goodies in time for the election. The Eurozone crisis soon put paid to that. The economy has failed to revive. And, instead, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies last week, Osborne will have to borrow an extra £64 billion by the time of the next election to keep the show on the road. It means all he can promise ahead are more public sector spending cuts – or tax rises, or both. One party figure notes: “The risk is that you end up with a demotivated grass roots who go into the election not believing they are not going to win.”
This fear of future failure plays into what is still seen as Cameron’s original sin – the failure to win an outright majority in 2010 when up against the tired, deflated government led by Gordon Brown. While Cameron’s modernising project in the Conservatives has often been compared to that led in Labour by Tony Blair, the big difference is that while Blair delivered the prize, Cameron did not. So with past failure and future doubts afflicting him – without the crucial glue of success keeping the project intact – the question becomes: what is keeping the Tory family together?
Cameron’s Europe speech two weeks ago helped matters – and ironically some of the most vocal backers of Cameron have subsequently been the very members of the Eurosceptic awkward squad who were making life most difficult for him previously. But the same-sex marriage vote last week, pushed by Cameron despite not having been in the party’s manifesto, appears, for some, to have unstuck it all over again. One party source notes: “Imagine you’re an MP in the Home Counties. You’re quite happy because Cameron’s referendum speech has probably given you a couple of thousand votes back from UKIP. Then two weeks later, the gay marriage thing comes up and a dozen of your activists hand back their membership cards.”
It is important to get the issue in perspective. Many Tory MPs, including significant figures such as Osborne and Theresa May all backed the plan, and many Conservative supporters will rejoice in them so doing. But the protests over both the reform itself, and the way it was handled, are nevertheless significant. Supporters are asking MPs and MSPs why the issue arose right now, at a time when the government needs to show it is focusing 100 per cent on fixing the economy. And the affair has raised once again some of the hoary complaints that afflict the Cameron governing style.
First, there are the complaints that the party is now run by its “Notting Hill set” of metropolitan social liberals who are out of touch with the party’s conservative rural hinterland. (Cabinet Minister Francis Maude declared last week that such a claim was “nonsense”.... “It doesn’t reflect any reality that I see and live with in my daily life,” he said). And second there are the familiar complaints that the plan was foisted on people by an “aloof” Prime Minister whose style borders on arrogance; a leader who seems to enjoy annoying much of his party as part of a “differentiation” strategy designed to show people he is not a stuck-in-the-mud Tory.
Again, the comparison – and contrast – with Blair is made. “There’s a feeling among grass roots that he’s wiping his feet among the activist base,” says one grass-roots party figure. The difference is that Cameron does not have the election-winning credibility on which to depend. Party activists note that it will be them to whom Cameron will turn in two years time for re-election. “The gap between him and many of them is now so wide the alarm bells should be ringing,” says one grass-roots organiser. And alarm bells should also be ringing thanks to the blizzard of Westminster plots that have swept through London in the last two weeks: from Windsor MP Adam Afriyie’s alleged plan to challenge Cameron if he fails to win a majority in 2015; to the confidence vote said to be under consideration in the summer of 2014 if Tory poll ratings do not improve; to claims of a bid to bring down George Osborne should the UK slip into a “triple-dip” recession this spring.
As he prepared to leave Brussels on Friday, having ensured that EU spending would be 24 billion euros lower over the coming seven-year period than it was over the previous seven, there was an unmistakeable sense that the Prime Minister wanted to milk the achievement a little. French President François Hollande had been out-manoeuvred. Britain’s gamble that it could persuade Germany to stick with it on demands for a reduced budget had paid off. An emboldened Cameron declared: “I think the British public can be proud that we have cut the seven-year credit card limit for the European Union for the first time ever.” It was a welcome chance for Cameron to show his troops back home that, on a foreign field, he had emerged the victor. Meanwhile, allies like Maude insist that while the party’s social conservatives may be split from Cameron at present, the party will come together again soon. “Sometimes parts of the Conservative party move but they move a few paces behind the centre of gravity of social attitudes. But we get there, maybe at different speeds.”
There is one trait this prime minister keeps demonstrating, and that is his ability to leap out and turn his fortunes around whenever he gets himself in a hole – what Bruce Anderson describes as government by “essay crisis” (for example, he signed off today’s statement on Scotland and the UK in the middle of the negotiations with Euro leaders on Friday). This weekend it appears Cameron has done it again. That deal on Friday, won after a 25-hour marathon negotiation, will tomorrow ensure Cameron gets a rapturous reception from his MPs when he reports back to parliament. Among them will be many of the same Tory MPs who were so riled by the events on same-sex marriage last week. Friday’s victory could not therefore have come at a better time. There will surely be plenty more tests to come for Cameron over the coming two years before the general election, not least the campaign to ensure Scotland remains within the UK. The last week may offer a guide to how he fares. There is likely to be bitterness, disillusion and exasperation over his leadership style. But he is a politician who appears to have the knack to find a way, despite it all, to come through. They may lose the skin on their teeth, but the Tories have to trust in Dave for now.