5 Mar 2011

Cameron needs to order more wine and crisps

“If he was a chocolate he’d eat himself,” (Tory MP on David Cameron).

I’ve been talking to Tory backbench MPs for a report on tonight’s Channel 4 News at 6.30pm and came across quite a bit of unhappiness with the general smoothness of David Cameron. There was resentment of his domestic arrangements (seeing more of his family, some MPs felt, than they do of their own… knocking off earlier, they felt, than some of them do).  There’s an “It’s alright for him” mood abroad.

Anyway, that wasn’t the point of the exercise, though I did find it quite striking. The point was to see how rocky the mood was politically. On camera, Patrick Mercer calls it “fragile”. He would say that, you might say. But he spoke on camera for many who would only speak privately. One senior backbencher said (off camera) that the mood was “febrile” and he “didn’t know where it would go”.

The topic of the moment is no longer IPSA and a sense of grievance over the new expenses system but AV. The argument used to run that losing the AV referendum would be critical for Nick Clegg. Now it looks like losing the referendum the other way could be much worse for David Cameron. Tory MPs stop you in corridors to share their worries – an AV win would be “a dagger at the heart of the party,” “we would never hold power outright again.”

Aside from that, you can easily guess the topics they worry about. There have already been the public U-turns on areas like forests. This week saw the Duke of York “march them up the hill” routine on Libya, and whichever side you favoured – marching up the hill or down the hill – there was scope for unhappiness.

There’s a general sense amongst some of the MPs I spoke to of being marginalised by the buffer of Lib Dem parliamentary votes that means David Cameron doesn’t have to listen to his own backbenches as much as they’d like. There’s lingering resentment about anonymous quotes from Cabinet ministers musing how an electoral pact of some kind with the Lib Dems in the general election might be a good idea.

And there’s a bit of a generational phenomenon at work too. Newer MPs often worked their seats for years before winning them in 2010. Some have very slight majorities. They were outside Westminster when the expenses scandal broke and smell the anti-politics, anti-Westminster air differently. They feel their constituents expect them to buck the establishment more, speak out and rebel if necessary – expect “more debate,” Dominic Raab (2010 intake) says. One backbencher marked out for office (2010 intake) said if he went back to his seat in five years’ time not having voted against the government a few times, they wouldn’t think much of him.

David Cameron is acutely aware of the political disquiet (not so sure if he’s aware of the personal comments). He’s been on a Chardonnay and Twiglets offensive, seeing lots of his MPs, dropping in on the tea rooms in the Commons as well… He’s said to find it a bit wearying. But given we’re only 10 months into this government, the unease is striking and, from David Cameron’s perspective, worrying. Maybe he should get a bulk order of wine and crisps in.

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