21 May 2013

Tory MP threatens Cameron with water clock torture

Does David Cameron really not entertain people who sneer at the Tory grassroots? Steve Hilton, his closest adviser for a period and a close family friend of the Camerons, used to talk about how the party needed to “replace the membership”.

One who heard these riffs said Mr Hilton made it sound like a blood transfusion. He wasn’t “sneering” in any class sense but he wanted David Cameron to be seen as embracing metropolitan thinking on issues like acceptance of the gay community and he saw the older, more traditionally minded membership as an obstacle to that.

Gary Streeter, former minister under John Major, has told his local paper that some of his fellow MPs are swivel-eyed, which keeps the phrase in the headlines for another day. That’s a very different accusation from the one attributed to a senior figure close to David Cameron, who thought the grassroots were driving Tory MPs to obsessive and destructive behaviour.

I chatted to some of David Cameron’s starkest critics in parliament this morning and they were showing no sign of needing grassroots energising. One said that the prime minister had already “played his John Major poker cards” and his “appeasement” of his backbenchers had failed. One MP said he was still wedded to the idea of toppling David Cameron with letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee demanding a vote of no confidence in the party leader and speculating that several more may have gone in within the last few days. He said it was like a “water clock,” quietly filling up before the hour strikes.

The marriage (same sex couples) bill gets its third reading in the Commons today and a vote at 7pm will be the moment for quite a few Tory MPs to register their unhappiness and give a signal to the House of Lords to wreak what havoc it can on the bill. The government is confident it will get this on the statute book by the summer recess and that was always the plan in bringing it forward now.

Mr Cameron’s team hopes it will be a distant memory by the time of the 2015 general election and they hope to start shifting the agenda on to other stuff almost immediately. There’s the G8 meeting in Northern Ireland, which the PM hopes will be a moment for him to bang on about his “global race” agenda. There’s the spending round for 2015-16, which he hopes will give him a chance to return to battle lines with Labour and outline some fresh ones.

It’s only a short period since sections of the right-wing press were praising Mr Cameron for sticking it to Labour on welfare and were joining him in turning their fire on Ed Miliband. Can it turn round again just as violently? What’s the residual impact on voters of several days of rows?

David Cameron’s team isn’t taking the Survation poll yesterday (Tories on 24 per cent,only 2 per cent above UKIP) too seriously. And they point to how the Labour party’s support has drifted down from an average around 43 per cent to an average around 38 per cent. They think that while the Tories were the main victims of UKIP’s first surge from 3 per cent to 10/11 per cent, their second surge to 15 per cent seems to be draining off more Labour supporters.

Whether David Cameron’s ship can be stabilised will come down to the party “holding its nerve” through this year and through the big test of next year’s European Parliament elections, one aide said – a tall order, you might think, on the basis of the last few days.

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