David Cameron will at best have a small majority for any government he forms after May 7…
- No opinion poll published during this election campaign has suggested that he is anywhere near winning a majority in less than a fortnight.
- If he somehow gains one against the psephology and the odds, it will surely be slender – if not wafer-thin.
- If he doesn’t win a majority, but is able to form a new Coalition, it won’t have the overall majority of 30 or so that this one has – unless the Conservatives hold nearly all their seats against the Labour, and the Liberal Democrats hold nearly all theirs against the Conservatives. This combination is improbable.
- The most likely government that Cameron will head if he returns is a minority government, kept in place under a Confidence and Supply a deal by the Liberal Democrats and the Democratic Unionists – or perhaps on a less formal vote-by-vote basis.
…Which means that such a government will only be able to get its business through Parliament by consensus…
- Not everything government does needs the stamp of approval from Parliament: for example, the Executive retains real sway over patronage and appointments.
- None the less, to get legislation through the Commons and win votes in the Chamber a new Cameron-led government will need to carry with it the whole Parliamentary Conservative Party – in the wake of a Parliament that has been the most rebellious since 1945 – plus, almost certainly, the LibDems and the DUP.
- If he is able to do so, he will then face a second hurdle: winning votes and getting legislation through the Lords.
…Which in turn means a new model of Conservative leadership…
- In such circumstances, Cameron will need to adopt a new model for Conservative leadership – at least, if his administration is to get much done and last until 2020.
- This model would end the effective running of the Government and the Party by duopoly – the Cameron/Osborne partnership. It would be an understatement to say that there are different views within the Party about how successful this arrangement has been to date. Our view in a nutshell is that it has been much more successful than some of its critics claim, but has had three major flaws, for which the Prime Minister himself is paying a high price. The first is poor Party management, stretching all the way from the A-list through the attempted abolition of the ’22 and the Syria vote to the by-passing of senior colleagues during this election campaign (an expected meeting of political Cabinet had not taken place). The second flows from it, and is strategic: the splitting of the Right, in the form of the loss of many activists and some voters to UKIP. The departure of the former is partly responsible for the present shortage of boots on the ground; the departure of the latter has cost Cameron any chance of a workable majority. The final flaw is not only strategic but constitutional: the handling of the future of Scotland has been driven by short-term tactics rather than long-term planning since 2010 and before.
- But whatever your view of the record of the duopoly in the past, it is clearly not sustainable in the future.
…And here is how it should work.
- The Cabinet is too big, and should be smaller. And there are too many departments anyway: Dominic Raab has some good ideas about cutting their number. But in any conceivable circumstance, Cameron will have limited room for manoeuvre – so radical reworking of government and Whitehall will have to wait until another day. He has little alternative but to lean towards re-appointing most of his present Conservative Cabinet members.
- However, he should form from it a top Tory team based based strictly on seniority. This should consist of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign and Home Secretaries, the Leader of the Commons, the Chief Whip and the Party Chairman. It should take charge of strategy and meet regularly.
- Cameron has made it clear that George Osborne will stay as Chancellor – which he should. Philip Hammond and Theresa May should also remain in their present posts.
- The key job in this constrained Government will be Chief Whip. Fairly or unfairly, it is believed that the Chancellor has too big a say in whipping and patronage; that Michael Gove, the present occupant, and Greg Hands, his deputy, are both Osborne’s men; that a Conservative MP has had either to be a woman, or what this site has labelled a F.O.G – a “Friend of George” – to win substantial promotion, and that the Whips’ Office should resume the balance of loyalty and independence that has usually marked it out.
- A new Chief Whip ideally needs to possess the following C.V. He must have the trust of the Parliamentary Party, including that of MPs who have sometimes rebelled. He must simultaneously hold Cameron’s confidence – or at least hold sufficient seniority to be taken very seriously by him. He must be able to work with the Speaker (a crucial requirement in the Parliament to come); with supportive parties (either in Coalition or Confidence and Supply), and even the opposition, in order to get the Government’s business through. He cannot altogether be a old-style Chief Whip, in that he must understand that the Commons is changing, and that military-manner whipping no longer works. But he must be enough of an old-style one to placate and wheedle anxious colleagues – to offer them whatever the modern equivalent of a glass of whisky is (plus or minus a revolver, as appropriate).
- Unsurprisingly, no single person boasts all these requirements at once. Mark Harper has many of them, but is still rather junior in the pecking order. Jeremy Hunt’s name has been floated. Cameron could do worse than bring back Patrick McLoughlin – or send for Chris Grayling, who has the confidence of most of the centre-right. But the name that comes closest to meeting most of the requirements is that of Graham Brady. As Chairman of the ’22, he has the Parliamentary Party’s respect, and knows it well. Cameron isn’t at ease with him (after all, he sought to stop him being elected to the post), but clearly takes him very seriously. Brady has thought long and hard about the future of Parliament – see his lecture last year to the Centre for Policy Studies. In policy terms, he is a radical, at least as far as the Commons is concerned. In personal one, he is, well, personable – well used, given the position he now holds, to dealing with prickly people. He has himself voted against the Whip, now and again, and thus understands the position of others so inclined. Cameron would kick against appointing him, but it would be the clearest possible signal of overdue change.
- Whether a Coalition is formed or not, there is a vacancy for Leader of the House. Party Left-Right balance within the top team could be found be appointing the most outward-facing, media-savvy senior woman Minister bar May to the post – Nicky Morgan, who as a former Whip also has a grounding in how the Commons works, and who now has enough media experience to fulfill another requirement of the post: being a Minister for Today. She will of course first need to get re-elected in Loughborough. A canny deputy, who understands how the next Commons will work and how the Conservatives should respond, would be Mark Prisk: see his ConHome piece on the subject here.
- Elizabeth Truss could return to Education to replace Morgan.
- Grant Shapps, who will deserve promotion if the Conservatives emerge from this campaign able to form a Government, could then fill Truss’s place at Environment.
- There is a strong case for Boris Johnson as Shapps’s replacement if a second election looms in the autumn – as we have suggested. However, he is Mayor of London until next spring, and squaring the post with serving as Party Chairman at the same time would be ticklish. The best medium-term candidate for the job – loyal but independent, a proven campaigner, full of ideas for winning new votes and a man who reaches beyond the Tory base – is Robert Halfon. Like Morgan, he faces a fight for re-election, but the signs at present are hopeful.
- If Francis Maude, in his new guise as Lord Maude, is not to stay for a year in the Cabinet Office to help find savings and value in the new public spending settlement, he would make a powerful Chief of Staff at Downing Street, where a political heavyweight is ideal for the post. Matthew Elliott of Business for Britain could do the job, but is taken up with the EU issue. Some of the Special Advisers could undertake it, too: the name of Sheridan Westlake, Eric Pickles’s SpAd, comes especially to mind.
- At any rate, any replacement for Maude will need views on civil service reform and knowledge of how Whitehall works. The best available candidate is Nick Herbert – who has co-formed a think-thank, Govern Up, to explore how to improve the quality of government.
If Cameron forms a minority government, his personnel options are wider.
- With no Nick Clegg in post, Gove could step in to take the Deputy Prime Minister’s responsibilities for leading on constitutional and political affairs. With his brains, energy, passion and Scottish origins, the Chief Whip would be brilliantly suited to square up to the SNP while simultaneously rethinking the constitution – and planning the Convention on it that is urgently needed.
- Andrea Leadsom could move up the Treasury pecking order to replace Danny Alexander as Chief Secretary.
- Sajid Javid could take over from Vince Cable at Business.
- Another Treasury Minister, Priti Patel, could then go to Culture – from which vantage she would be well place to keep an eagle eye on the BBC.
- And Liam Fox could return to the Cabinet as Climate Change Secretary, bringing his foreign affairs experience to bear and providing a conservative take on the debate in doing so.