About eight years ago, when I first entered journalism, I got speaking to a Conservative MP at a drinks event. His name and his face have genuinely left my memory, but his words have not. No sooner were the hellos and handshakes done with than he said: “The thing about Cameron is…” And he followed with several unkind observations about his party leader. This surprised naïve, young me at the time. “Weird!” I remember thinking. “We’ve only just met, and he’s already baring his enmities. Is this how it’s going to be?”
I soon learnt that, in Westminster, this is how it’s going to be. Attacks on David Cameron, from his own side, were a large part of the conversational thrum of the last Parliament. “He couldn’t even beat Gordon Brown!” they said. “He’s so close to the Lib Dems that he’s practically one himself!” Sometimes this chatter even left the barroom and made itself known on the op-ed pages, or in yet another backbench rebellion. This Prime Minister had never enjoyed the unequivocal support of his own troops. He was heading for a reckoning with them.
And yet, and yet, we come to this Parliament, and the reckoning hasn’t arrived. Instead, much of the anger seems to have simmered down, or at least failed to boil over as it was expected to. Just consider the setup: an unloved Tory leader, coming off the back of five years of coalition, is taking the country into a vote on Europe for which he will campaign against most of his party. And then consider what’s happened so far: nothing, really. No particularly vituperative tirades from Davis or Redwood or Paterson. No resignations or defections. No assassination attempts.
What we’re left with, as John Rentoul suggested recently, is a situation in which the strongest blue-on-blue aggression comes from Andrew Tyrie in his role as a select committee chief. And when the smart and sober Tyrie is running the Opposition Within, you know that the Conservative family is being relatively civilised at the moment.
Part of the reason for all this is, of course, the General Election. After his victory in May, Cameron is still not especially popular among his backbenchers, yet he is patently not the loser they thought he was. This makes him less assailable, as does the condition of the Labour Party in defeat. Conservative MPs are hyperaware that this Parliament’s majority could be the basis for the next Parliament’s majority, and perhaps even for majorities beyond that. They know that Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to get anywhere near Downing Street, unless the Conservatives help him by rowing over Europe. Most are acting accordingly.
Will this continue? There are reasons to believe so. For one, Cameron has moved, albeit belatedly, to diminish the effect that the European Referendum will have on his party, including by allowing ministers to campaign for leaving. For another, the make-up of the Conservative Party has changed in a way that could make its current leader more secure.
We hear a lot about the rise of the post-expenses politician; MPs who are far more beholden to their constituents than to their party leaders, and who prove it by rebelling in the Commons. But there is another side to this development. The independent-mindedness of these MPs also makes them less likely to join any herds on the backbenches. They might rebel here, they might rebel there, but will they commit in toto to one person’s putsch against the leadership? This is not how they operate. Which, in turn, weakens those who would see Cameron done away with.
Incidentally, this could also weaken the competitors in the next Tory leadership election. The parliamentary party isn’t quite a collection of Heidi Allens, but it is heading that way. George Osborne? “Too smooth.” Theresa May? “A bit Edna Mode.” Boris Johnson? “Wrestling fish.” It is difficult to discern a large and enthusiastic grouping behind any one candidate, much less people who would truly describe themselves as “Osbornites” or “Mayites” or “Johnsonians”. The herds are dwindling.
The impending leadership election is another reason why Cameron is getting off lightly now. When he announced his intention not to serve a third term as Prime Minister, back in March, it seemed like a strange decision; a grand distraction from the business of defeating Ed Miliband. But with Miliband vanquished, it’s a decision that is paying dividends. There is currently little need for backbenchers to unsheathe their knives and angle them at Cameron’s back. The man has committed to an honourable death already.
Perhaps it’s the men and women committed to succeeding Cameron whom the backbenchers will target next. It’s already striking how often Osborne’s name comes up in those accusatory conversations around Westminster. The Chancellor had always been regarded, and sometimes resented, as part of the Cameron Project, but now he is seen as something apart from it: the actual leader of this Government. For some Tories, particularly those who haven’t benefited from his patronage, this makes him something to be fought.
Or perhaps, despite current appearances, the backbenchers still have some wrath reserved for Cameron. The EU Referendum could provoke it. Questions about the timing and nature of his departure could too. I’m no longer that naïve, young journalist who expects Westminster to be gentler than it is. And I’ve learnt a very basic lesson over the past eight years: the Tory Party has a near boundless capacity for self-harm.