Fox affair exposes David Cameron’s weak spots
It’s time this rather distant and grand PM made his backbenchers feel more loved
ALL LAST WEEK, as Liam Fox fought for his ministerial career, there were ominous rumbles on the Conservative backbenches. Nothing surprising there, except that many Tory MPs were just as concerned about whether David Cameron was being sufficiently supportive of his defence secretary as they were about the increasingly damaging revelations of what Dr Fox and his chum, Adam Werritty, had been up to.
On the right, Fox was admired not just as an effective defence secretary but also as a standard bearer for traditional Tory values in a coalition which Conservative backbenchers feel is far too much under the sway of the Lib Dems. Even when he was riding high, however, he was never a threat to the Prime Minister's authority.
After being forced out so ignominiously, that is unlikely to change. But while this incident should not make relations between Cameron and his backbenches any worse, it will not improve them either.
The mutual mistrust between the PM and his parliamentary foot soldiers goes back a long way, to when he won the party leadership. His message then, that the Conservatives needed to modernise if they were to become electable, got the overwhelming backing of the party in the country.
But among Tory MPs, even some of those who voted for him were doubtful about what he stood for. After three consecutive defeats, they were just desperate for anyone who might be able to win a general election.
So when their new young leader posed with huskies in Arctic Norway to prove his green credentials, and even when he urged the country to hug a hoody, they smiled indulgently. When he failed, as they saw it, to stick up for them during the expenses scandal, they kept their peace. It was only when he failed to win the election outright, and instead took his party into coalition with the Lib Dems, that the relationship really began to get difficult.
Much is made of Left versus Right, moderniser versus traditionalist in the Conservative party. The distinctions do exist, but they are not as rigid as people assume. Nor is it correct to say the coalition lacks right-wing influence. Its central theme, cutting the deficit, and its policies on schools and welfare are all popular with the Right.
Among the PM's closest associates, William Hague, Michael Gove and George Osborne are all considered to be broadly of the Right. All three are closer to him than their fellow cabinet ministers, including the Right's bêtes noirs, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, and Lib Dems Chris Huhne and Vince Cable.
Being a moderniser, it seems, is perfectly compatible with being right-wing, provided you are in the Prime Minister's gang. The rub is that if you are not in office when your party is in government, then you probably are not part of the gang.
For many Tory MPs, it is this sense of them and us, and of being taken for granted, that really grates.
Part of it is about policy. Most Conservatives want the Government to be more assertive with Europe and more energetic about deregulation. But the political gripes are compounded by financial worries as the new expense regime cuts MPs' money. And it doesn't help that the upcoming changes to constituency boundaries could cut their majorities or lose them their seats altogether.
Coalition is also proving particularly difficult for the Conservatives, because there are fewer ministerial jobs for Tories than had been expected, and also fewer reshuffles to give them hope. Age comes into it, too, with those in their fifties and sixties especially liable to feel passed over and neglected.
It is true, of course, that it is not just the Conservatives who have these problems. In all parties the political and the personal are closely intertwined. But it would matter a lot less if Cameron could make his backbenchers feel more loved.
Surprisingly, Nick Clegg has proved rather adept at this with the Lib Dems. But it is something the PM seems not to be very good at, or perhaps just not very interested in.
His MPs will grin and bear it, because they have to. The irony is that it is precisely this impression of Cameron as a rather distant and grand figure that did so much to undermine him at the last election. If he cannot make himself more approachable, even to his own supporters, it does not bode well for his chances with the rest of us at the next one. ·
Comments are now closed on this article