When will the Tories turn awkward for Dave?

When will the Tories turn awkward for Dave?

Can the discipline hold until and beyond 2015?

It’s now over six years since David Cameron was elected leader of the Conservative Party. Assuming he’s still around to address the Tory conference this autumn, he’ll then be the third-longest serving leader of his party since Churchill.

What’s particularly notable about this feat is how easy a ride he’s had in that time. His leadership has never seriously been threatened from within.

The only ‘on principle’ resignation he’s suffered from his shadow / cabinet was David Davis, and that was in protest against Labour’s policy (and discredited someone previously thought of as a rival). There have been a few rebellions in parliament – the EU vote most obviously – but they’ve not escalated into mutterings about Cameron’s leadership itself.

That marks a significant break with recent history. In the sixteen years between 1989 and 2005, there were no fewer than seven contested leadership elections / vacancies, and few periods when the leader was not under serious pressure of one sort or another.

There are two main differences between now and then. Firstly, most Conservatives consider the party to be polling well enough. At a time of public-sector cuts and austerity, to be holding roughly level in midterm with the 2010 general election share is more than adequate. By contrast, Labour was almost constantly ahead during the turbulent years, often way into double figures.

Secondly, we’re at the opposite point of the swing of the pendulum. Opposition encourages discipline; long periods in office tends to breed complacency. The moment when the Tories got serious about winning back power was not the dumping of IDS, it was the unopposed selection of Michael Howard. Thirteen years out of office – the longest continuous period in the party’s history – does a lot to remind ministers and MP’s that things don’t always come right. It also means that there’s the attraction and distraction of lots to do, mitigating against too much infighting.

That seems unlikely to last too long. The tortuous progress of the NHS reforms through parliament have shown the limits of what the coalition is capable of delivering in a Conservative agenda. Much the same to the Lib Dems’ pet project of Lords reform from the other side.

Without big reforms to enact, the next three years are more likely to be about managing things – getting the deficit down, keeping the recovery on track and ensuring public services keep delivering as money gets tighter. That’s all worthy stuff but what it lacks is the kind of driving purpose and momentum that first-term governments usually have, and it’s that purpose which tends to prevent the sniping and factionalism that afflict governments that have been around longer.

The whole nature of a coalition government is new to the UK. One consequence is that aspects of new and old governments happen at once. MP’s are full of ideas but the government is likely to pass little reforming legislation. The parties will have a record to run on but will be advocating changes to the policies of their own time in office. The impulses to discipline and rebellion act on Conservative MP’s simultaneously as they continue to seek an overall majority, but feel the time now slipping away.

Which of those impulses wins out may play a significant role in determining who wins the next election, though it’s a somewhat circular process as who is likely to win the next election will also influence which impulse wins out, and whether Cameron will continue to enjoy the relatively smooth sailing he’s had so far, or the choppier waters of his predecessors.

David Herdson

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