Liam Fox puts down civil war gossip but demands right turn

Former Defence Secretary says leadership coup is ‘utter nonsense’ after 14 MPs ask for change

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:45 ON Mon 17 Sep 2012

FORMER Defence Secretary Liam Fox has called off the dogs of war inside the Conservative Party and dismissed talk of a leadership coup against David Cameron before the 2015 general election as “utter rubbish”.

However, Fox, who last week launched Conservative Voice with fellow right-winger David Davis, did issue a warning to Cameron: adopt a right-wing manifesto for the next election or go down to certain defeat.

Fox even put himself forward to assist in writing the manifesto, with a promise of a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU at the heart of it.

Cameron will be hoping that Fox's intervention will stop Tory wars breaking out into the open at the annual Conservative party conference at the end of the month, for which the PM is fashioning an appeal for party unity in his keynote address.

Tim Montgomerie, editor of the grassroots ConservativeHome website, reported that Cameron issued a call for unity in a private speech to the Carlton Club last week at a £750-per-head dinner.

"The PM ended his speech with a warning about party disunity," Montgomerie reported. "The party must not go back to the bad old days, he said. It was a sign that he is somewhat concerned at the rebelliousness that has infected the parliamentary party in recent weeks."

Under Tory Party rules, Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, has to call a leadership election if 15 per cent of the Parliamentary Conservative Party - a total of 46 Tory MPs - put their names to such a demand. So far, it is rumoured that 14 have written letters to Brady. Most, I am told, are not even well known in their own households.

Only one has so far unmasked himself publicly - Patrick Mercer, an ex-army colonel and former defence spokesman, who came out in the Mail on Sunday. His name is no surprise: he was outed by the Mail at a drinks party in November 2011 calling Cameron an “arse” and a “most despicable character”.

The others are the usual suspects - all eurosceptics who want Cameron to pull Britain out of Europe. Under the rules, they may never be named if Brady does not receive the required 46 signatures. Some are said to be among the 'barmy army' who made life a misery for Sir John Major when he was prime minister but - as Norman Lamont famously put it - not in power.

Major himself warned against regicide yesterday. ''If the Conservative Party has learnt anything," he said on the Andrew Marr Show, "it’s that regicide is not a good idea”.

He pointed out that the rebels’ favoured candidate, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, is not in Parliament, and that their ambition to change leaders was fanciful. (Major also said he believed Britain was beginning to see the first “green shoots” of economic recovery in rising employment figures, but that’s another story.)

Cameron meanwhile is busy crafting his great leadership address. In addition to calling for party unity, he is reported to be borrowing from President Obama's keynote speech to the Democrat convention, saying that he never promised it was going to be easy.

But significantly, in his Carlton Club speech, he also included an upbeat message on the economy: real progress was being made in clearing up Labour's mess; the deficit had been reduced by a quarter and the economy had created more than a million private sector jobs.

In his conference speech in 2006, he told the Tory faithful: “Let sunshine win the day!” Is the Sunshine Kid aiming to make a comeback? · 

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Right, Left or Centre - Cameron is almost certainly doomed to the Opposition benches at the next General Election. His promises are empty and without any credibility, he lacks "bite" when it comes to Europe - whether or not we stay in or leave, or remain in some sort of fudged quasi membership limbo - Cameron no longer commands respect or trust on this issue, either at home or within Europe.

Liam Fox may, or may not, be correct in his analysis - but for this level of discontent to appear within the Tory party rank and file is not welcome and could easily have been avoided by Cameron - simply by saying what he means and keeping to his word. He has pandered far too much to the very junior element within the Coalition - the Lib Dems - he should have called their bluff a long time ago and ignored the huffing and puffing of (inter alia) Vince Cable.

The country needs and expects a leader of character and calibre - we have one with neither of those attributes.