Way back when I first started this blog, I said that David Cameron was having difficulty persuading his own party that he was taking the country in the right direction, and that if he failed to address this then his party would be in real trouble. Since I wrote that, the situation has got much worse for him and there is now a real possibility that the Conservatives could start tearing themselves apart again, just like they did in the 1990’s.
So that you understand how bad things have got, consider this. In 2004, when Michael Howard was the Conservative leader, he considered offering the voters a referendum on a renegotiated relationship with the EU, or giving them the option of leaving it if they so wished. His advisor, David Cameron, pleaded (successfully) with Howard not to do this because he thought it was an unnecessary distraction from what mattered to voters, and was basically just pandering to the Conservative right wing.
Last week, faced with that same increasingly rebellious right wing, David Cameron was forced to make exactly that pledge. His often expressed hope to lead a party which was not obsessed with the European issue is well and truly dashed. You would think that his party would at least be grateful for the concession, yet within a week we hear that some of them are plotting ways to remove both the Prime Minister and his close ally George Osborne.
In the short term this is highly unlikely to happen. The only way Conservative MPs can remove Cameron is by holding a vote of no confidence in him. Although it only takes 46 of them to call this vote, it would take 152 of them to win it (there are 303 Conservative MPs in this Parliament), although if a significant number did vote against him his position would probably be untenable. The rebels have not yet even mustered enough support for the confidence vote, although they are trying.
In the meantime this leaves Cameron in a near impossible position. He cannot shift his policies to the right because his Lib Dem coalition partners will vote against him, as they did with the recent boundary review. He cannot shift to the left because his own backbenchers will vote against him, as they did with his attempt to reform the House of Lords. He will lead a government that cannot actually govern. You will see the effect of this on Tuesday, when Parliament votes on gay marriage. Cameron has put forward this legislation, but in all likelihood he will rely on the votes of Labour MPs to pass it. It’s not a good sign when the government requires the support of the opposition to get its business through.
Come the next election, things just get worse. If the Conservative right forces Cameron to run on a hard right policy platform, the chances are that they will lose, just like they did in 1997, 2001 and 2005. The British public just won’t vote for a party that right wing, provided of course that there is a credible alternative. That’s still a long way off, and there is plenty of time for Cameron to turn this around, but he’s going to have to start soon if he is to achieve this, otherwise it’s all downhill from here.