By Paul Goodman
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There's a triple significance to the post-Eastleigh interventions of the three main Conservative members of the National Union of Ministers – Philip Hammond, Theresa May, and Chris Grayling.
It may look at first glance as though Hammond's plea for savings from welfare to be found to protect his budget, and May and Grayling's interventions over the European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act last weekend, have little connection, if any – but they've more in common than meets the eye.
- All three show up Downing Street's lack of authority and grip. It wasn't clear at the weekend whether David Cameron had licensed Hammond to defend his budget. It now seems that it didn't: today, an anonymous "close ally of the Prime Minister" is quoted as saying: “You cannot be a fiscal
conservative and then say that does not apply in your own department.” And it still isn't clear whether or not Number 10 was aware of, or was perhaps even the source of, this weekend's report that Theresa May favours leaving the ECHR. (It was presumably aware of Chris Grayling's on-the-record support for tearing up the Human Rights Act). Indeed, news of her backing for the measure doesn't seem to have come from her, though it hasn't been denied by the Home Office and hasn't drawn a view from Downing Street. This is the nub of the matter. Prime Ministers will sometimes encourage Ministers to float ideas, and then let it be known that they approve of them. But there has been no real follow-up to Grayling's words or May's view from Number 10 – no rowing-in behind abolishing the Act or leaving the ECHR, no sense of political purpose, commitment or direction. Instead, Ken Clarke has taken his colleagues to task. This sense of Ministers stating their own views and going their own way, with Downing Street apparently powerless to prevent them, opened up Number 10 to Mark Field's blood-drawing counter-attack.
- The May and Grayling follow-up, together with Number 10's own reaction to Eastleigh, shows that it hasn't a settled strategy for dealing with UKIP. Tearing up the Human Rights Act…leaving the ECHR…restricting the access of immigrants to legal aid and benefits…proposals for less Europe and more border control are leaking from Ministers and Downing Street into the media. It is unfair to accuse Downing Street of "lurching to the right" after Eastleigh. (Why do we hear so little from the BBC and others of Ed Miliband "lurching to the left"?) David Cameron's Sunday Telegraph article was careful to balance "bringing down immigration" with "proper investment in the NHS". But Downing Street is undoubtedly preoccupied with how to deal with UKIP in the aftermath of Eastleigh and the run-up to this spring's local elections. Promises of tougher border control and tighter benefit conditions won't be enough – and nor will hints about quitting the ECHR. UKIP is a boot which angry voters, who believe that Britain is changing for the worse, are using to kick the system. Those disillusioned voters now include a significant slice of the Conservatives' natural electoral base, who believe that Cameron is a creature of the political class who cares nothing for their values. May's record of reducing net immigration won't win them all back. Nor will Number 10's "Santa Claus" line of attack – at least until voters stop using UKIP as a protest vehicle, and start questioning how it would reconcile tax cuts for "everyone" with more police, prison places, NHS services, student grants, bigger pensions and higher defence spending. Hammond's intervention on the last shrewdly recognises another UKIP pressure point.
- May, Hammond and Grayling all want to be in a position to contest a post-2015 leadership election. May is a cautious operator who tends to works with her colleagues rather than against them – as her role in the "National Union of Ministers" suggests. This is why I suspect she didn't brief the weekend papers about Britain leaving the ECHR. Such a move would have been a risky escalation of the discreet profile-raising exercise that she has been undertaking for some time. But that exercise does show that she is positioning herself to be ready for a tilt at the leadership after 2015. Hammond is emerging as a pivotal figure on the centre-right of the Cabinet. Though less identified with the right than Iain Duncan Smith or Owen Paterson, he is none the less a heavyweight with real business experience (and has not taken Cameron's line on same-sex marriage). Grayling sits in much the same political space, and will also want to keep his options open. The credibility of all three as potential leaders will be questioned and mocked in some quarters. But the weakness of the Prime Minister's position is opening up political space in which they and others can try to build up their claims and a following: in this sense, the next Tory leadership election is underway. Those others include a big figure outside the Commons altogether – Boris Johnson, who sits meditating over the Tory landscape, like some no less formidable but more benign General Woundwort brooding over Watership Down.