By Tim Montgomerie
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It is supposedly the silliest month of the year. No big news is said to happen. While MPs increasingly prefer staycations in Cornwall and in the Lake District, political journalists – after writing obligatory hatchet jobs about MPs' long recesses – still disappear to Europe's beaches.
But this August? You can make the case that August 2012 was one of the most important political months of this parliament. Three things of real importance occured.
(1) The Conservatives lost the boundary review. The deal between Nick Clegg and David Cameron was that Tories would deliver an AV referendum and, in return, the Lib Dems would vote for fair constituency sizes. Despite what some Liberal Democrats argue the deal was unrelated to delivering an elected Lords (just as it is unrelated to Coalition Agreement promises on Human Rights reform and answering the West Lothian Question (things, which if brought to a vote, would have been rejected by Lib Dem MPs). Nick Clegg held this view as recently as six months ago. Clegg has U-turned because his leadership is in much bigger trouble than most of us had previously realised. The Tories may be down in opinion polls but we're not out. The Lib Dems, in contrast, are facing wipeout in all left-leaning parts of Britain, notably Scotland, Wales and the great northern English cities. It won't be long before newspapers are publishing polls that show the Lib Dems could do better under Cable's leadership.
Clegg betrayed the Coalition Agreement because he needed to bolster his internal standing. The consequences for the Conservatives and the Coalition are huge. The boundary review was the single most important plank in Team Cameron's bid to win a majority. Tory strategists expected it to add 20 MPs to the Tory Party's parliamentary strength. I've argued the loss of the review amounts to the single biggest electoral setback for the Conservatives since Black Wednesday. Ben Brogan and Matthew d'Ancona have both floated the idea that the review might be saved by a deal on state funding of political parties. I don't think Tory MPs would nor should vote for such a thing. Cameron and Osborne need to accept the review is lost and become much bolder in other ways as a result.
If the boundary episode has badly damaged Cameron I don't think it will save Clegg. Clegg may even last until the end of next year but the Liberal Democrats have zero chance with him as their leader at the next election. Paddy Ashdown's defence of Nick Clegg in this morning's Guardian reminds me of an article that William Hague wrote in defence of Iain Duncan Smith's doomed leadership. Tories should not rejoice in Clegg's difficulties. As Pete Hoskin argued yesterday, for all of his flaws he's probably the only Lib Dem leader who would have led his party into a coalition with the Conservatives.
(2) The rise and rise of Boris. One of the side-effects of London's historic Olympic Games was that Boris Johnson shone. The first sign came when Hyde Park crowds chanted his name when he addressed them. His face was cheered whenever it appeared on the big screen in the Olympic stadium. Don't take my word for it, ask Five Live's Victoria Derbyshire. Then there was the zip wire. One opinion poll showed that, contrary to Westminster Village wisdom, he was probably more popular outside of the south than David Cameron. The chances of Boris being Tory leader have long been dismissed by that same Village wisdom. Some are still in dismissive mood. SteveHiltonGuru promises thunder and lightning if Boris ever stood. But this is a man who has won twice in a Labour-leaning city, once in the middle of a period of austerity overseen by a Tory PM and Chancellor. In Wednesday's Times (£) Danny Finkelstein stated that "the idea of replacing Mr Cameron and somehow remaining in power and electorally viable is preposterous and can only be seriously entertained by people without a proper grasp of politics". I put my hands up. I'm entertaining it. Seriously. Perhaps I don't have "a proper grasp of politics" but if Cameron cannot improve his performance in the next 12 to 18 months a change of leader isn't probable but it is possible. Forty Tory MPs already hate Cameron. Another fifty think he doesn't have a plan to win the next election or save their seats. If he upsets another fifty that's just about a majority of the parliamentary party.
In this blog I set out how Boris could get over the practical barriers to him becoming the next Tory leader.
(3) The rebelliousness of the parliamentary party is at epidemic levels. The number of division lobby rebels speaks for itself but I've also been startled by the violence of the language being used against the Prime Minister. I wasn't so surprised that Brian Binley would liken David Cameron to a chambermaid. More surprising was unusual suspect Tim Yeo's challenge to the Prime Minister to prove that he was a man, not a mouse. A whip told me earlier this week that the parliamentary party was out of control and Number 10 didn't seem to care very much. He paused and then added, "that's before 95% of backbenchers hopeful of promotion in the reshuffle are left disappointed."