Imagine for a moment that you are a Conservative MP in a marginal constituency. What would you think while staring drop-jawed, over the last few days, at open civil war within the Government? A resigning Iain Duncan Smith launches a hellfire missile at George Osborne. One of the Chancellor’s allies, Ros Altmann, takes a popgun shot back. Three fellow Ministers in the same department – Priti Patel, Justin Tomlinson and Shailesh Vara – turn their guns on her in return. Tory Parliamentarians pour onto Twitter to take sides and open fire. I can’t speak for you but I know what I would say – to my Association Chairman, to the Whips, to my spouse (or whatever), to whoever was willing to listen. Pardon my language, but it would be: “All this risks losing me my seat. Why can’t they all shut the f**k up?”
This brief but expressive view will surely be shared by every candidate fighting or defending a marginal council seat in May’s elections – not to mention by every Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament candidate as well as, doubtless, Zac Goldsmith in London. He deserves better. So do they. And so do the persevering, money-raising, raffle ticket-selling, dinner-attending, leaflet-dropping, door-knocking local members whose property the Conservative Party is and without which it would not exist.
On the core issue of Britain’s EU membership, the Party itself is now a pyramid. At the top is a pro-Remain Cabinet – the more so, since Duncan Smith’s departure, now that the number of pro-Leave Ministers attending it is down from six to five. In the middle is a divided Parliamentary Party: some two in five MPs are for Leave, including a greater number of backbenchers. And at the base are the members, two in three of which, according to this site’s surveys and a recent YouGov poll, are also for Brexit. To the fact that the top is now unrepresentative of the middle – let alone the bottom – one must add the explosive context of July’s referendum. The Duncan Smith resignation markes the most dangerous moment for the Party since the ousting of Margaret Thatcher the best part of 25 years ago.
None the less, danger can be averted and crises are not fatal – or don’t necessarily have to be, anyway. The Government and Party can step back from the brink in three collective moves.
The first is to recognise that there is now a difference between Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne. The former has left the building. The latter is still in it. A combination of the former Work and Pensions Secretary’s assault, the Chancellor’s support for Remain, and a sense that his time and luck at the Treasury are running out have led even to some of the latter’s supporters to suggest that he be moved. A time for a reshuffle will doubtless come. But this is not for moment for it. What is needed is a recognition at the top that backing for Osborne’s position should be balanced by him reining in his supporters. As Mark Wallace wrote earlier today, Altmann should leave the Government (which would free Stephen Crabb from inheriting a divided team). And the Chancellor should stay in place.
He may have his faults – no, never mind may: he does, many of which ConservativeHome hasn’t held back from criticising – but the country and Party owes him much, including his big role in an economic recovery and an election win. Gratitude is an under-rated virtue. So is keeping one’s sense of proportion.
The second is that although David Cameron is, as far as Osborne is concerned, a kind of first among equals, he is first – and that matters. He is the Prime Minister. He must lead in calming his Ministers down, ordering a ceasefire against Duncan Smith, and enforcing it. Which in turn means showing Tory MPs and his Party a visible symbol of change. This site has called more times than it can remember for what might, perhaps unfairly, be called the replacement of Notting Hill Government by Cabinet Government – that is, by the top of the Conservative Party being more than the Dave-&-George show. Downing Street should signal that, during the fissile run-up to the referendum and beyond, the top Cabinet team will from now on meet as a team and govern as a team.
It should consist of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip. The Chairman of the 1922 Committee should join them when Party business is being discussed, since the Party Chairman has no independent standing of his own.
But even a shoring-up of the Chancellor and the taking-up of Cabinet Government might not be enough, during these coming weeks, to calm the passions stirred by Britain’s EU membership and exploded by Duncan Smith’s spectacular resignation. Something else is needed – or rather someone – who fits a tricky bill. That someone would be a supporter of the Chancellor, and thus trusted by the people at the top of that pyramid. He would also be a supporter of Brexit, and therefore trusted, too, by those at the bottom. He would be liked and respected by his Parliamentary colleagues, with a proven record of delivery in at least one government department. He would be sought for his counsel by both Osborne and Boris Johnson – and, ideally, be a friend of the Prime Minister too.
Only one person fits the bill, and I will describe it in terms that he will understand. Every King of Gondor needs a Steward; every King of Westeros a Hand. Michael Gove, who wrote a superlative Sunday Telegraph piece earlier today urging calm and sweet reason, should be brought back into Cameron’s inner circle. Getting through the difficult weeks before the referendum and the hazardous ones after – and perhaps staving off a leadership challenge to the most electorally successful post-war Tory leader save Margaret Thatcher – means allowing the Justice Secretary also to serve as Deputy Prime Minister, either de jure or perhaps better de facto (to save Osborne’s face).
Neither pro-Remain Cameron nor pro-Leave Gove can stop the carnage and enforce peace on their own. But they can together. The alternative is for council seats that looked safe a week ago to be lost in May; for Government management to risk unravelling and the referendum aftermath to chance regicide, and for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party – incredible though this may seem – to begin to creep back into 2020 contention.