One of the most remarkable features of David Cameron's leadership of the Conservative Party to this point has been that although he is personally very unpopular and ill-trusted amongst hard-core activists and backbench MPs, he has always been protected by his personal bodyguard: TINA – There Is No Alternative. Mrs Thatcher faced the threat of Heseltine. Major faced Heseltine and Portillo. Hague faced Portillo, even when Portillo was not in Parliament. But Cameron…has only had TINA.
Now of course, leaders have periods where their position is so powerful that the notion of an alternative never arises – Mrs Thatcher from mid-1982 to 1986. And many leaders are deeply unpopular – Thatcher in 1981-82; Major in 1994-5. But for a leader to combine deep and widespread unpopularity with overwhelming internal support, on the grounds that whatever one may think of him he is vastly and unquestionably better than anyone else – that's a trick only Cameron has pulled off for decades at least.
It makes a difference when a leader faces no specific internal threat. It doesn't of course mean he can ignore all internal concerns. On each specific issue he could in principle lose if he doesn't take sufficient account of his Party's views. But it does mean that his opponents will find it less straightforward to coalesce to overturn his whole programme and replace it with something else. He can, to a large extent, fight his battles one at a time.
But once there is a Prince-in-Waiting, that changes. The Prince has his own allies and those that would seek to make him leader, whether he asks them to or not. Opponents of the incumbent leader on specific issues will try to work out what the Prince-in-Waiting would do – whether he would be more sympathetic to them. The incumbent leader starts to face the risk that if he does not sufficiently placate his internal opponents, then, even if his opponents would disagree with each other on many specific policy questions and be unable to defeat him in any particular case, they might all be able to agree that they would prefer the Prince-in-Waiting.
Cameron now, at last, faces a credible Prince: Michael Gove. I do not suggest, for one moment, that Gove is plotting to bring Cameron down or even that there are any immediately plausible circumstances in which Gove would seek to challenge Cameron. Gove does not need to plot against Cameron; his mere existence is enough to constitute a threat.
Gove is, in some ways, a rather surprising Prince – perhaps even to himself. One would have thought of him as perhaps rather too clever to be a leader – too attached to positions of his own. He has a bookish air that suggests the advisor whispering over the shoulder, rather than the main Man. There is something about his physical appearance that reminds one vaguely of John Major in his prime - not a characteristic likely to endear one to right-wingers.
His appeal, though, is clear. He has impeccable and unquestionable moderniser credentials – an early supporter of Cameron himself; a personal narrative that deflects many traditional leftist attacks. At least until recently, he has been very popular with his departmental Lib Dem underlings, and apart from Cameron himself is the potential Conservative leader most strongly placed to keep the Lib Dem frontbenchers in the Coalition (including Osborne). Those of us with a liberal interventionist streak will recall that Gove is the fiercest neo-con in the Cabinet. His education reforms have been the most widely lauded reform programme (even more so than Welfare), with a genuine sense that they are achieving something and are directed with energy and purpose in a genuinely Conservative direction. At the same time, his education reforms are the most straightforward "heir to Blair" agenda the Coalition is pursuing (indeed, it is arguable that that is precisely why they have made so much progress) – a very neat trick to pull off. Gove is reported as having, alongside Pickles, led Cabinet opposition to the Cameron-Clegg axis on turning-point issues such as ECHR reform.
Popular amongst right-wingers, modernisers, his Lib Dem colleagues (up to recently) and in the media, Gove has reached critical mass in credibility. If Cameron were suddenly to quit for reasons of his own, Gove would certainly face pressure to put himself forward as a candidate.
But that is enough for his existence to be start being used by Cameron's internal and press enemies. It doesn't matter that Gove doesn't sanction his own promotion by such people or might even actively discourage it. Osborne might be a credible candidate if Cameron were to see out his innings and pass things on to his right hand man. But no-one would bring down Cameron to replace him with Osborne. They would do that with Gove. More, indeed. Cameron is so unpopular in certain circles that now that Gove is there, people will already be nurturing schemes to replace Cameron with Gove.
Perhaps initially the purpose of such schemes will be to try to make Cameron compromise more with his internal opponents and less with his external ones. More progress on Europe, less on House of Lords reform. Cameron has many personal strengths and the natural advantages of incumbency and office, and his opponents may prefer, at first, to have a Cameron that did what they wanted to taking a risk on someone else. But how will Cameron respond to such pressure?
The instinct of a ruthless leader – and Cameron's willingness to be ruthless is one of his strengths - tends to be to cut down the tallest poppy. Gove has many potential weaknesses – in particular, his cleverness can be painted as ideological, and his history as a journalist inevitably means he has sometimes written provocative things easily painted in a poor light. For example, given our decade in Afghanistan, how do folk feel now about Gove's notable 2001 article arguing that, in Afghanistan, we should "stop being afraid of ghosts, and start making some"?
Of course, if a quality adversary is aware you have brought him down, he can become a very dangerous enemy. By the end of her time in office, Thatcher's back benches were full of high quality enemies.
Either way, now, with his bodyguard TINA dismissed and Prince Gove in waiting, Cameron faces a new pressure, it's only a matter of time before his internal and press enemies apply that pressure against him, and the clock is running. Tick, tock. Tick, tock…