Right-wing Tories must accept: there is no alternative to Coalition
David Cameron cannot turn right and he cannot ditch the Lib Dems. The Coalition must pull together fast
IF DAVID CAMERON is depressed by the Conservatives' poor showing in the local elections, he should be thoroughly alarmed at how the results have been received by his backbenchers.
With the economy stuck firmly in the doldrums and a fractious coalition to manage, a return to the Tory civil wars of the Nineties and Noughties is the last thing he needs. Suddenly, though, it seems very much on the cards.
The idea had been that this would be the week in which the Prime Minister and his Lib Dem deputy, Nick Clegg, re-launched their partnership. Instead, following last week's drubbing at the polls, he finds himself under intense pressure from his own side to distance himself from the Lib Dems' pet project of Lords reform.
Unless the Coalition can pull together, and fast, the sense of drift that has dogged it over the last year could become overwhelming. Most Conservatives would be glad to see the back of Lords reform, but it was supposed to be the centrepiece of Wednesday's Queens's Speech. If it is kicked into the long grass at this late stage there will be real doubts about whether the Coalition can still agree on anything of substance.
No wonder many Tory MPs cannot see any way out of their predicament.
That last week's poor results were entirely predictable seems to make no difference. Boris Johnson's victory in London notwithstanding, there is a mood of despair in the ranks which the PM ignores at his peril.
As this column has remarked before, Cameron's problem with his party stems essentially from his failure to gain a majority at the last election – a fact the PM himself alluded to in his letter in yesterday's Daily Telegraph when he wrote: "Of course some things would be more straightforward if I was running a Conservative-only administration than a coalition."
For the Cameroons, their inability to win against a massively unpopular Labour Prime Minister when the economy was in the deepest recession in living memory showed that their attempts to detoxify the Tory brand had not gone far enough.
Unsurprisingly, the right saw it very differently. If Cameron could not even manage a majority against Gordon Brown, they concluded, he was not the winner they had hoped for. It is an argument that has never been resolved, and, by binding himself into a coalition with the Lib Dems, the Prime Minister has effectively ensured that it can't be, at least this side of a general election.
It is this sour reality that both sides now have to accept if the Tories are to avoid slipping further towards disaster. Yoked to Nick Clegg, Cameron can't drag the Government to the right even if he wants to.
Suggestions that he should ditch the Coalition are equally unrealistic. By law he is now locked into a five-year term. It might be he could find a way round this, but the chances are that a general election any time soon would result in either a Labour victory or a Lab-Lib coalition. Neither, presumably, is what the right wants.
A couple of weeks ago, in the aftermath of the budget, I wrote that Cameron's instinct over the summer would be to hunker down, hold a limited reshuffle and wait for the storm to blow over. I suspect this still is his instinct, but with so few options it is imperative he makes the most of those that are still open to him.
It is surely time he told George Osborne to give up his unofficial role as the Tories' chief strategist, and to devote himself full time to his day job at the Treasury. Too often, the Chancellor gives the impression that he is powerless in the face of the euro crisis. He needs to tackle the reforms needed for growth, here at home, far more energetically than he has bothered to so far.
Rather than being limited, the reshuffle, when it comes, also needs to be energetic. Incompetence has become almost as big a problem for the Coalition as the lack of growth. Osborne may be unmovable, but after the shambles at the airports, a new Home Secretary would be welcome. A new Health Secretary would also be a good idea.
But above all the Tories have to accept that, unless something very unexpected happens, they are stuck with both their current leader and the Coalition for the next three years. They may not like it, but they have to move on. As a leader they did like once famously said, "there is no alternative".