Peter Oborne, on his weekly Spectator perch, is in no doubt that David Cameron caused the fall of Charles Kennedy:
"Kennedy has been ‘boozing’ (i.e., enjoying the odd glass of beer or whisky, and occasionally letting his hair down in private) for years. He would have been allowed to carry on in the same merry vein into the next general election except for just one thing: the sudden emergence of a popular Conservative leader who threatened to reverse the Lib Dem gains of the last decade. David Cameron was Kennedy’s undoing, not secret bingeing."
Mr Oborne notes that Mr Blair is Mr Cameron’s latest target. Mr Cameron hopes to divorce Mr Blair from the mainstream of the parliamentary Labour Party by supporting the Prime Minister’s education reforms. Mr Blair tried to escape being too close to the bipartisan Mr Cameron on the education bill by taunting the Tories over their support for grammar schools. This, Mr Blair hoped, would be enough to reassure his backbenchers that he was sufficiently different from the new Tory leader. Faced with these tactics Mr Cameron had a choice, Mr Oborne argues:
(1) Keep traditional Conservative policy on selection and grammar school education or…
(2) Ditch Conservative policy and stick close to the Prime Minister.
We all know that Mr Cameron chose option (2). Mr Oborne notes that "Cameron has been forced to set aside a valuable article of Conservative belief, laying himself open to attack from the Right". That attack came immediately from The Telegraph and last night from Norman Tebbit.
On last night’s Question Time Lord Tebbit warned that Mr Cameron’s rush to the increasingly crowded centre posed real dangers for the Tories:
"The danger for him is that that if he moves the Tory party on to this mythical central ground that he will finish in a dogfight with the Liberals and New Labour, all of whom would be saying things which were very similar to each other. That would leave a lot of people on the Right of politics – voters – feeling disenfranchised in the same way that Tony Blair has left a lot of people on the Left of politics feeling disenfranchised."
The Cameroonies may hope that The Right has nowhere to go but that’s not true. Some may go to UKIP. Some (hopefully very few) may even be tempted by nationalist parties. Much more likely is that many will sit on their hands and stay away from the polling booths.
Discontented small ‘c’ conservatives may even join campaigns like those that will be run by emerging groups like the enormously promising Taxpayers’ Alliance. James Frayne used an article on the must-read Spectator blog to describe the Alliance’s unfolding agenda. Britain has long lacked a conservative movement to hold the Conservative Party to its historic tasks. The combination of a more consensual, centrist Conservative Party and the possibilities of internet-based mobilisation may have created the possibility for such a movement to begin to emerge. This will be a theme that ConservativeHome will be examining in detail over coming weeks.
The one bone that Mr Cameron seems doggedly determined to throw to The Right is his EPP pledge. Today’s Telegraph reports that MEPs who do not toe the new leadership’s line will not be permitted to stand as Conservative candidates at the next European elections. The Eurosceptic Right must insist that exit from the EPP is the beginning of Mr Cameron’s Euroscepticism – not its end. In itself it does nothing to give Britain more independence from the Brussels superstate. One policy that would have been good for British sovereignty and our marine environment – repatriation of fishing policy – has already been sunk.
Defenders of Mr Cameron’s centrism nonetheless point to the LibDem leadership crisis and opinion poll advances as justification for the Tory repositioning. Core Conservatives may accept that the interests of the Conservative Party sometimes require some dilution of conservatism but their loyalty can only be stretched so far. If it is stretched much further there will be a backlash. It will be a mighty backlash if the LibDems end up choosing a more dynamic leader than Charles Kennedy and the Tories fails to move appreciably ahead of Labour.
Tony Blair is telling his party not to panic. Labour insiders note that the Government still enjoys big leads on crime and security issues and although David Cameron has only enjoyed good publicity in his first six weeks he remains level-pegging with Labour in overall voting intentions. What’s more, Labour believe, all of David Cameron’s really difficult policy decisions lie ahead of him…