When Iain Duncan Smith was running for the Tory leadership in 2001, a newly elected Conservative MP popped his head around the door that led into the outer office, where an MP’s parliamentary staff sit, and asked if IDS was in. The MP – let’s call him David Cameron, because that’s his name – was making his way around the candidates and wanted to hear what their man had to say. IDS was then interviewed by the super-confident young MP, who on his way out chatted to the office staff. What mattered to him, he said, was that the Tory party and its assorted factions must stop banging on about Europe in order to win back voters. Those present recall young Cameron declaring: “I just want us all to get along.”
How’s that going? After one of the more extraordinary weekends in modern Conservative history, during which IDS blew up the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister said farewell to the outgoing Work and Pensions Secretary with a volley of swear words, allegedly, and ministerial discipline seems to have broken down, the Tory leadership must now fight the In-Out EU referendum against a backdrop of civil war and charges that it does not care about the disabled. The latter charge is obvious nonsense, and at some point I’ll return to the background of disability benefit, PIP, which is fascinating (no, really).
But before I get back again to writing this book I’m due to deliver soon (next week), consider this piece an attempted catch all response to friends who have texted in the last 48 hours. Some of those texters are usually indifferent to Tory politics, which suggests the party’s meltdown is resonating. All have asked a version of the following question: What does it all mean? I’m not sure I know yet, as it is all rather fast-moving and some of it depends on things which haven’t happened yet. That caveat aside…
1) We are witnessing, I suspect, the end of the Cameron-Osborne era, which since 2005 has had a run almost as long as the Blairite experiment did. Tiredness is taking its toll. Gordon Brown had his seven year rule, which was that seven years was about the limit of the public’s patience for someone being in charge and being all over their TV screens. Eventually a thought forms in the mind of millions of viewers: “Close the door behind you on the way out. Next!” I’m not sure that applies to Cameron yet, because the leader of the opposition he faces is highly unlikely to ever be Prime Minister, even if the global economy collapses, and the Tory leader seemed to be elevated by his election win last year onto a higher plane. The EU referendum, and the unwinding of the Chancellor’s position, is reversing those gains. If Brown’s seven year rule applies, the Cameron-Osborne team have been in power since 2010. Next year makes seven years, and they were front and centre in opposition for five years before that. Nothing lasts forever, as Echo & the Bunnymen put it.
2) The final act of an opera can go on for ages. Amid all the excitement, it is perfectly possible that this fuss settles down for a while, the referendum focuses on the European question, Cameron gets lucky on migration meaning the vote does not become a verdict on whether the UK govt should control the UK’s borders. That way he wins, eviscerates his enemies and it all trundles on for a couple of years. Quite often it takes several years to get from the beginning of the end to the end itself. But who really thinks the Cameron-Osborne duopoly has life beyond 2017 or 2018 at best? Look back now at the vanished world of New Labour a decade ago and marvel at the figures whose words were weighed for meaning, whose faces were forever on our TV screens. Where are they now? Pretty much all gone. It will be this way with the Cameron-Osborne leadership too. The only thing less enduring than an era in party politics is journalism about an era in party politics.
3) This has all become very, very, very personal for Cameron, much too personal. The EU vote is, I’m told, increasingly in his view a test of loyalty, which is a highly dangerous way to look at it. As he surely knows, this is not – when it comes to it – how political parties function. If they did, triple election winner Margaret Thatcher would have won easily in November 1990 and then defeated Neil Kinnock (again) in 1992. Parties are not the property of a person and appeals to loyalty as of right don’t get a leader far. Worse than that, there comes a moment when Prime Ministers fall into the trap that really only they can do the job, with all those negotiations, the dealing with foreign leaders, the world stage, terrorism, and secret stuff that would make your hair curl. A PM can come to think: Don’t the people realise what I do for them? One of Cameron’s most appealing characteristics is that for all his confidence he has tended to resist such hubris and rather looks forward to family life afterwards. To this observer, the stress of the referendum seems to be producing a change in which he is rapidly approaching boiling point. That is not a good frame of mind in which to fight the campaign, and he is not helped either by the blood-curdling demands from pro-EU Tories that he slaughter the Eurosceptics once he wins, and the anti-EU turbo-nutter talk of removing Cameron even if he wins. This is a situation out of control. It is akin to that tense scene in Reservoir Dogs in which all the men have a gun trained on them and everyone is shouting.
4) It has long been an open question whether in purely operational terms the Tory leadership crew are half as good as they think they are. When Lynton Crosby was there – hired, to his credit, by Cameron – it hung together well. Beyond that and without him it seems shambolic. Osborne keeps making basic mistakes with Budgets, while the Prime Minister tolerates the Chancellor spending half his time building his own machine. I think the dislike of Osborne is massively overdone, but even so I cannot buy (putting it politely) my friend Bruce Anderson’s recent view of the Chancellor as a towering giant at the peak of his powers.
5) This shambles cannot be helping the Tories in Scotland. The party at Westminster seems to have forgotten that in a few weeks Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, is in a tricky scrap for second place in the Holyrood elections. Rows about disabled benefits and English Tories at war will not help. It is simply a question of how much damage it does, and whether Davidson can get sufficient number of Sottish voters to focus on the urgent need for the SNP to face a proper Unionist main opposition at Holyrood.
6) What on earth was Number 10 playing at putting pensions minister Baroness Altmann out at the weekend to attack IDS? In their desperation to respond to IDS the spin doctors have weakened one of the core operating principles of government. The Altmann line was that she had been blocked by IDS from doing what she wants in policy and presentational terms. To which the response should be “welcome to ministerial life.” Is Number 10’s position really now instead that Ministers of State will do what they like? Really? If that’s the case, what could possibly go wrong? Even worse, allowing Altmann to issue that bizarre statement only encouraged other DWP ministers – somewhat exasperated after the experience of dealing with Altmann – to issue their own statements backing IDS and rejecting her claims. A further complication is that before this meltdown Number 10 applied pressure on DWP advisers to get Altmann to tone down her grandstanding.
7) Boris did nothing – nothing – last week and then spent the weekend skiing. Pip pip!