David Cameron in deep water: will Tory rebels push him under?
From growth to bust: if ever proof were needed that a week is a long time in politics, this was it
TORY supporters are dismayed that David Cameron has ended the week looking like a leader who has lost control of his party and presiding over a government which, largely due to the flooding fiasco, looks incompetent.
It could have been so different. He began the week buoyed by the best growth figures in years, with the economy recovering faster than he or his Chancellor, George Osborne, had dared hope. He then gave a confident performance at Prime Minister’s Questions, asserting - with his hapless Environment Secretary Owen Patterson dodging around by the side of the Speaker's Chair - that he was going to get a grip on helping those people who had been underwater for a month on the Somerset Levels.
We were told that the Army was going in, amphibious craft were on their way, and the pumping of the flood waters would be carried out faster. It all sounded like the smack of firm government at last - and that Patterson had been giving a bollocking for telling the residents that they could submit an action plan but they had to wait six weeks!
Yet within 24 hours, it was Cameron who was sinking under the flood of events.
In the Commons there was total chaos over an attempt by Tory backbencher Dominic Raab and nearly 100 of his colleagues to strip the right of appeal from foreign offenders who resist being removed from Britain by using the European Convention on Human Rights to assert their right to “family life”.
Home Secretary Theresa May tried to buy them off with an alternative measure, giving her the right to remove British citizenship from alleged terrorists. She told her own MPs that the Raab amendment to the Immigration Bill would lead to a direct conflict with the European Court of Human Rights.
That was like a red rag to the bull of the Tory eurosceptics. Sensing humiliation if they pressed it to a vote, Downing Street waved the white flag in the face of the rebellion, and announced behind May's back that the government would officially abstain on the Raab measure to avoid the appearance of a split in the Tory ranks.
Labour rejoiced. Diane Abbott declared on BBC TV that Cameron “has lost control of his party”.
Then there was the flooding snafu. Two Army majors turned up at the Somerset Levels and went away muttering there was nothing they could do.
Not since the Duke of York marched his men up to the top of the hill and marched them down again has a leader looked so weak or incompetent. Cameron's appointment of Patterson, a climate change sceptic, as the man to deal with the flooding – which most people believe must have something to do with climate change - was repeatedly used last night on Question Time as an easy applause line.
Just to put the lid on a terrible week, Francois Hollande, the socialist President of France, is due to meet Cameron today and tell him – over lunch at the pub, according to the Daily Mail – that his hopes of renegotiating a special deal for Britain within the EU are pipe dreams. If Hollande and like-minded Europeans have their way, that will sink the frail ship on which Cameron was hoping to keep the Conservative Party united for the next election.
No wonder Tory supporters are close to despair with Cameron. Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, blogged this morning in the Daily Telegraph that it could be a death wish.
Under the headline ‘The Tories’ loop of vengeance could sink their election hopes’, Nelson writes: “He surrendered, in the end, rather than face the 85 Tories who were ready to vote on Dominic Raab’s plan to stop foreign prisoners appealing against deportation on human rights grounds. His government abstained, saying the plan would be illegal and impractical.
“And why not oppose an illegal idea? Because the Prime Minister felt too weak to confront Mr Raab, a black belt who sees politics as karate by other means. He had raised a small army and persuaded Cameron that the only winning move would be not to fight. It was a pitiful sight, revealing just how weak the Prime Minister’s parliamentary authority is.”
It could be written off as just a bad week for Cameron - even M Hollande would surely be sympathetic - but Tory commentators fear it is a sign of worse to come. As the Daily Telegraph columnist Ben Brogan writes, “The irreconcilables are beyond reason. They have Mr Cameron on the ropes and are going for the KO. They will pound away, using every opportunity they can. The weeks after the Euro elections will be terrible.”
In short, just like Labour in the unelectable years under Michael Foot, the Tory rebels seem hell-bent on purity of policy, even if it means losing power at the next general election.