Cameron's crisis: at least there's no Heseltine sharpening the knife

Apr 20, 2012
Richard Ehrman

At the moment it's all disaster, and rebellion - but if growth resumes, the PM's prospects could be transformed

TWO YEARS into David Cameron's premiership, and nothing seems to be going his way. He says himself that it has been a “tough month”. Many of his supporters think it has been disastrous.

In the wake of the Budget, just 23 per cent of party activists in a survey by the influential website ConservativeHome thought he could win an outright majority at the next election. Now he faces a rebellion over the House of Lords.

Yet step away from the bad headlines, and in important respects his position remains remarkably strong. Despite the unease in his party, there is no rival waiting to challenge him, no Heseltine or Brown ready to stick the knife in.

Nor is there any serious suggestion that one is likely to emerge. Unless something very unexpected happens, the universal assumption remains that the Prime Minister will lead the Conservatives into the next general election – and in politics that is about as far ahead as most people think.

That election is also, in all likelihood, still three years away. Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, it would take 55 per cent of all MPs to call it earlier, and it is hard to envisage so many turkeys voting for Christmas.

But while being in coalition buttresses Cameron's position, it also constrains him. At this stage in a parliament most governments are beginning to look a bit frayed round the edges. Typically, prime ministers try to respond with a relaunch, usually accompanied with a reshuffle to rejuvenate their operation and reinvigorate the troops.

But while Cameron and Nick Clegg may be in government together, the Lib Dems want to emphasise their differences, not the points of agreement. This is likely to make any relaunch very difficult and also complicates a reshuffle.

The presumption is that Cameron, as Tory leader, could only move the Tory members of his team. At the very least this limits his ability to introduce fresh faces and cut out dead wood. If Nick Clegg feels disinclined, or simply not strong enough within his own party, to reshuffle his side of the coalition, the whole exercise could fall very flat indeed.

So what can the PM do to regain the initiative? There have been calls for him to rein back George Osborne's joint role as Chancellor and chief political strategist - neither of which is working out well at the moment. Cameron, though, is even more tied to Osborne than he is to Clegg.

However, he could address some of the other weaknesses at No 10. One of the lessons of the last month is that relying on a few long-standing chums to run his operation, together with a cadre of apolitical civil servants, is not sufficient. Boosting the number of experienced political advisers could make a big difference.

So could a heavy-hitting party chairman to put the Conservative case more effectively. Splitting the role between Lord Feldman (another chum and largely invisible) and the feisty but unelected Baroness Warsi may have been acceptable in palmier times, but the going has got rougher now.

Beyond Downing Street, the PM also needs to mend fences with his party, and especially his backbenchers and the Conservative-leaning press. All parties have their tensions, but his ability to make people whose support he needs feel excluded could all too easily turn a problem into a crisis.

Whether Cameron will do much of this, though, is doubtful. He is not a man who responds well to criticism, particularly from his own side, and while he clearly relishes being in government he can seem curiously uninterested in the ups and downs of everyday politics.

He is also cool under fire. On two occasions it has looked as if his leadership could be in question, despite the lack of any obvious rival. One was last May's AV referendum, the other December's EU treaty. On both, he moved decisively to head off the danger.

At the moment his position looks safe despite all his recent woes, at least for the next three years. That is a long time not just in politics, but also in economics. If growth resumes over the next 18 months, his prospects could be transformed by 2015.

Boris Johnson losing in London could yet upset his calculations. Barring that, everything we know both of him and the coalition suggests his instinct will be to keep his fingers crossed, have a limited reshuffle later in the summer and otherwise let things ride.

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