Alastair Meeks asks how could David Cameron deal with a party within a party?
David Cameron has had a cabal of fierce critics on the Conservative backbenches conspiring against him almost since the moment he became party leader. In the new Parliament, the cabal has re-emerged and, emboldened by a small Conservative majority in the House of Commons, has periodically pounced to undermine their leadership’s plans on tax credit cuts, Sunday trading and benefit cuts, among other things. The referendum campaign has brought a new focus to long standing tensions within the Conservative party, with Conservative MPs on either side attacking their fellow Conservatives with gusto. The bonds of loyalty at a party level are being weakened in some cases and in some cases on the Leave side those bonds are in danger of being replaced with bonds to a much narrower grouping.
A party within a party has not yet formed but the danger is real. The Conservative majority is currently 12. A rightwing para-party within the Conservatives would command far more than this number. If it formed, we would effectively have a minority government with supply and confidence support from a para-party that would dearly love to oust the current Conservative leadership.
Does this matter? After all, the Conservatives have nearly 100 more seats than Labour. Well yes it does. Look at the make-up of the House of Commons:
Cons 331 (including Speaker)
Lib Dems 8
Sinn Fein 4
Plaid Cymru 3
*Includes MPs who have had the whip suspended
Let’s say that 30 Conservative MPs formed a para-party. What are David Cameron’s options for ensuring that they cannot hold him to ransom? The answer is: not very good. The rest of Parliament is unusually uniformly lined up against him. So finding new allies would be very tough going.
Labour of course are the Conservatives’ real enemy. But Labour find themselves in competitive opposition with the SNP, who are anxious to show Scots that they are more effective at confronting the Tories. There is not the slightest chance of David Cameron getting help from that quarter.
In a different way, the Lib Dems are also in competitive opposition with Labour. They are anxious to show, post-coalition, as much distance from the Conservatives as possible. Co-operation would be on the most limited of bases and on very specific topics. Anyway, there are only eight of them.
Of the smaller parties, Sinn Fein don’t turn up, Plaid Cymru and the Greens are like-minded with the SNP and the SDLP is like-minded with Labour. Lady Sylvia Hermon is independent but much more pro-Labour than pro-Conservative. David Cameron can forget about help from any of them.
The UUP are a more hopeful prospect for support. The Conservatives have a Nobel Prize winner in their ranks in the House of Lords – David Trimble, who hopped across from the UUP in 2007. So David Cameron can hope for help there. But they have only 2 MPs.
That leaves the DUP and UKIP. UKIP’s MP, Douglas Carswell, is really an independent clad in purple, but his dislike of David Cameron is evidently intense, judging from his twitter feed. The DUP come from the same ideological stream as the putative para-party – opposition to gay marriage, socially conservative, keen on populist spending for their client base. They are far more likely to ally with the para-party than David Cameron’s Conservatives.
We don’t need to get into precise numbers to see that if the Conservative rightwing para-party commanded 30 or so Conservative MPs, David Cameron would be beholden to them on the current Parliamentary groupings. They could wield a lot of power.
Is there anything that he could do to break a para-party’s grip over him? Candidly, even the remoter options don’t look good. His best remaining option to marginalise their influence is to hope for the Labour party also to splinter. If he were able to make a generous and open offer to Blairite MPs, offering them substantial concessions on policy, he might hope for their support. But the experience of the Lib Dems is very fresh in all politicians’ minds and the Blairites, even if they were minded to break with the rest of Labour, would need more than that. Unless they were themselves hard-pressed, I’d expect them to be looking for a no-compete agreement at the next election so that they did not find themselves devoured by their erstwhile allies in the same way as Nick Clegg’s troops.
We’re starting to get into the realms of political novels now. And that’s my point. Coming back from flights of fancy, if the Conservative party fractures into smaller blocks, David Cameron will face agonising problems of party management. He’s always been poor at that and he is unlikely to start getting better once he’s alienated large numbers of his MPs over the referendum campaign. So his best practical option is to stop the blocks forming in the first place. That may be easier said than done. His retirement announcement may after all have been very well-timed.