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Sunday, February 02, 2014

Cameron's Quandary and Tory Rebels

The papers have devoted some space today - at least in their non-celebrity pages - to last week's rebellion by Tory MPs, in which David Cameron was saved largely by Labour and Lib Dem votes.  That his backbenchers are more ferociously euro-sceptic than he is comes as no surprise - it's right up there with "public don't like bankers" on the revelatory scale - but the question is being raised as to whether Cameron has fundamentally lost control of his parliamentary party.  Or, indeed, whether he ever had it.

David Cameron was elected as Tory leader by a membership who were impressed with his ability to give a speech without notes, who realised that the party needed a fresh face and who had been uninspired by the main right-wing standard bearer David Davis.  They assumed Cameron was a basic right-winger, and accepted his modernising efforts in opposition through gritted teeth.  The problem has always been that Cameron himself has no deep roots in the Conservative Party (apolitical as a student, he came up through the ranks of the party's researchers to which he seems to have gained membership through social connections rather than political reputation) and thus no heft to wield against his more grassroots-connected colleagues.  Cameron understood the need for the party to "modernise" (i.e to moderate its overall outlook) and brought them into government.  His party members, and the MPs who most closely resemble them, never accepted the idea of diluting Conservative - or more accurately Thatcherite - positions, and certainly never came to terms with the idea of sharing power with the Lib Dems.  To compound matters for Cameron, a large segment of his 2010 intake were newcomers who gained political maturity under Thatcher.  That Europe, and all matters connected with Europe, has become alightning rod for wider discontent over what is seen as anaemic Tory leadership, is a fact of Tory parliamentary life.

There is another issue which bedevils Cameron's leadership.  The widespread public revulsion over the pre-2010 expenses scandals convinced many MPs that what electors wanted were more independent minded MPs who didn't simply follow party lines and feed at the parliamentary trough.  Except that, as ever, what electors want is contradictory.  Independence is good, but electors vote for united parties not divided ones.  This is the point made eloquently by John Rentoul in today's "Independent on Sunday".  He also quotes the findings of the guru of political rebellions - Nottingham University's Philip Cowley - that MPs have been getting more rebellious for years, and that Cameron used the tactic of abstention to reduce the public impact of his MPs' predictable disquiet over Europe-related bills.  Cowley maintains a regular assessment of parliamentary rebellions on his blog "Revolts", and the piece on the Raab Rebellion is here.

Cameron's Quandary is going to be that of any modern Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, and as ever in a democracy it in fact comes down to us, the electorate.  We want our MPs to show independence and to question the dictates of government.  But we are also less enamoured of them pursuing more personal hobby-horses (and Europe is certainly that for many Tories) at the expense of effective government.  That's our right as voters; it is the job of our representatives to interpret it as best they know how.


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