Once a party is seen to have turned inward, and to be indulging its own priorities rather than addressing the anxieties of the electorate, it is sunk
By Matthew d’Ancona
In his interview with The Sunday Telegraph today, William Hague makes it powerfully clear that his Cabinet colleagues have had their collective ears boxed (or perhaps, given their ministerial rank, red-boxed). Yes, Michael Gove and Philip Hammond declared a week ago that, in a referendum held now, they would vote for Britain’s exit from the EU. But the Foreign Secretary is emphatic that there’ll be no more freelancing: “The rest of the Cabinet will not be answering hypothetical questions.”
Hague’s apparently straightforward remark signals the absolute determination of the ruling Tory troika – Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary – to restore order to their fractious tribe. Since his return from the United States, Cameron has been telling close allies: “My strategy is clearing the battlefield.” He wants the controversy over same-sex marriage to be settled by July. On Europe, he has thrown the weight of the Government behind a private member’s Bill demanding a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU. Though the proposals have notionally been framed as a private member’s Bill, brought forward by the Conservative MP for Stockton South, James Wharton, the initiative, wording and whipping arrangements are all the work of Downing Street. Given the constraints of the Coalition, there is little more that Cameron can do to win over those Eurosceptics who still do not trust him.
As I have written before, the correct response to the Ukip surge is not appeasement but to govern well. The whole point of Nigel Farage and co, and their fellow travellers in the Tory party, is that they are unappeasable. Cameron deserves credit for promising a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU – the first since 1975 – not because it might win back Ukip-curious voters, but because, in the great sweep of history, it is the right thing to do.
It doesn’t help his case that one of his closest lieutenants, Lord Feldman, has suddenly been embroiled in a row over remarks made last week at a private dinner. According to reports yesterday, an unnamed close ally of the Prime Minister described Tory association members as “mad, swivel-eyed loons” who were urging their MPs to rebel over Europe and gay marriage. Abusive language of this sort simply hardens opposition and nurtures resentment. Feldman, co-chairman of the Conservative Party and a friend of Cameron’s since Oxford, vigorously insists that he did not deploy these toxic phrases. But the denials and counter-denials that continued overnight have poisoned the already fraught relationship between leadership and movement, and will make the return to the Commons of the same-sex marriage Bill this week all the more of a challenge to the PM, as he struggles to keep his party stuck together with Blu Tack, string and staples.
As the main governing party practises collective self-harm, its junior partner looks on aghast. As usual, Cameron and Nick Clegg have been in regular contact, not least in the routine meetings of the Quad to discuss next month’s spending review. The Deputy Prime Minister was certainly taken aback by Gove’s assertion that he was stalling over the Coalition’s child-care strategy to protect himself from Vince Cable’s ambitions to supplant him as leader. “The day that you rely on Michael Gove for insight into what happens in the Liberal Democrats, you really will be lost,” said Clegg on Thursday. “Michael, who is a perfectly nice chap, doesn’t know the first thing. Of course, he knows a thing or two about leadership ambitions, but that’s a different matter.”
Miaow. Catty remarks like this aside, what troubles the Lib Dems is the speed and ferocity with which the Euro-shambles is tearing through Conservative ranks, its destructive effect incomprehensible to a party for whom the EU seems incontrovertibly lovely and welcoming. Clegg and the recently released Chris Huhne were both MEPs before they became MPs; Simon Hughes, the party’s deputy leader, spent a year at the Collège d’Europe in Bruges and worked in Brussels and Strasbourg before entering Parliament; Danny Alexander worked for the European Movement and Britain in Europe.
In Andrew Adonis’s fascinating new book on the Coalition’s formation, 5 Days in May, the extent of Clegg’s uneasiness on this score in 2010 is laid bare. “I am worried about the Conservatives on Europe,” he told Gordon Brown in several conversations. Even on the night of May 11, as Brown prepared to resign, Clegg was fretting about the Tories’ antipathy to the EU: “We need some sanity on Europe. We can’t seek to renegotiate.
Well, three years on, that is precisely what the Government in which he is Deputy Prime Minister is proposing to do. But what troubles the Lib Dems most is not Cameron’s plan: most of the blueprint outlined in his speech on the EU in January concerns strategic steps to be taken by a putative Tory government after the 2015 general election and beyond the lifetime of the Coalition. For Clegg’s party, the clear and present danger is not exit from the EU but political implosion: the risk that the ravenous virus of “Europe” will eat away at the Tory body, until the whole structure of the Government simply collapses.
The Lib Dems are obsessively preoccupied by institutional change as the basis for enhanced democracy: the Alternative Vote, Lords reform, localism… these they have approached with a passion. But the Conservative fixation with Europe and British nationhood has long mystified them, and now frightens them. The question they ask is: where does it all end? When will the Tory party grow weary of self-scarring? The very last thing the Lib Dems want is the break-up of the Coalition and an early general election in which they would be summarily slaughtered.
The greater mystery for the Lib Dems is why the Tories are allowing good news to be eclipsed. “You’d think they would make more of King’s remarks,” says one of Clegg’s closest allies. “Isn’t that the real story?” Last week, Sir Mervyn King, the departing Governor of the Bank of England, announced that “a modest and sustained recovery” was on its way. As he himself noted, this was “the first time” he had been able to make such a prediction “since before the financial crisis”.
As a Chancellor who has known only global financial turbulence and a currency crisis on Britain’s doorstep, George Osborne is disinclined to hail “green shoots”. Since the Autumn Statement of 2011, he has been publicly committed to a programme of deficit reduction that will last well into the next Parliament – at least. So there is no bunting in the Treasury. Previous inhabitants of No 11 have tempted fate with calamitous consequences.
Even so, King’s statement was a significant punctuation mark in the story of this Government – perhaps very significant indeed. It should, at any rate, have been the main political story of the week. Instead, it was drowned out by the clamour of Europe and obscure arguments over amendments, draft legislation, abstention, and hypothetical questions. It is Osborne’s 42nd birthday on Thursday. The best present the Chancellor’s party could give him – and itself – would be to change the record.