Today I made my debut as a columnist in the Sunday Times, deputising for Adam Boulton. I’ve written for most other papers at some time or other but never the Sunday Times, which I have always regarded as the best newspaper in the country. My mum would have been proud. Anyway, here’s the article which looks at what opposition David Cameron is likely to face from his own party in this parliament.
It seems I have unintentionally become a hate figure for Blairites across the country. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do it, but it was me — or more accurately one of my LBC radio listeners (Sarah in London, since you ask) — who put the idea of running for the Labour leadership into Jeremy Corbyn’s head.
The fateful moment came during an interview Corbyn did with me on my show two days after the election. When Sarah suggested he run, the old leftie reacted with incredulity, but as he came off air he was clearly scratching his beard, thinking: “You know what, why the hell not? It’s not as if I’ll win.” Ahem.
I spoke to one former Blairite cabinet minister last week who is convinced Corbyn is heading for victory. If that happens, we are surely in for a few years of internecine battles for control of all parts of the Labour party. If I’m right, Labour politicos will be spending more time fighting each other, at least for the next three years, than fighting the government and holding Conservative politicians to account.
So if Labour doesn’t do that, who will? There will be parts of the media that try to fill the void, but the big question is whether David Cameron will face growing opposition from his own ranks. Tory backbenchers are an increasingly rebellious bunch, as Professor Philip Cowley, the political geek’s geek, will confirm. Far from being the political lapdogs most voters think they are, backbench Tory MPs have become ever-less beholden to the party whip. But will a small parliamentary majority encourage them to be more obedient, or will they use that fact to hold their own government hostage?
Political commentators inevitably suspect that internal opposition will coalesce around Boris Johnson, whose first few months back in the House of Commons have been dominated by a drenching from Theresa May’s very own water cannon. But that hasn’t happened yet. In some ways Boris has cut a sorry figure in the Commons, and many backbenchers just don’t know what to say to him.
Some in the media look to Boris to lead the “no” campaign in the EU referendum so he can show what he’s really made of on a national stage. It’s. Not. Going. To. Happen. Boris pretends to be an out-and-out Eurosceptic, but delve beneath the surface and you’re likely to find a rather pragmatic pro-European. Just like his dad, Stanley. The trouble with Boris is he has left a trail of clues as to his real views from his time in the 1990s as Brussels correspondent with The Daily Telegraph.
One Tory backbencher told me he can’t see Boris being the ringleader of any internal opposition to Cameron either. “He isn’t a coalition-builder who charms people into joining him on the ramparts,” he said. “It’s that public-school thing of expecting the worker bees to take orders and fall in line, and Tory backbenchers don’t react well to that.”
So if opposition in the Tory party isn’t going to focus around Johnson, where will it come from? At the moment, the government is going through an extended honeymoon period, which shows little sign of ending. In the short term, opposition is going to be issue-based, rather than the so-called “usual suspects” rebelling on everything under the sun. And I am not just talking about my old boss David Davis.
Cameron is said to consider himself very lucky in his political enemies on his own side. He thinks Davis doesn’t command any support on the back benches and other serial rebels are busted flushes. Liam Fox still has a following of sorts, but not one powerful enough to do the leadership much damage. A handful of backbenchers such as John Redwood, John Baron, Andrew Percy, Philip Davies and Philip Hollobone will continue to irritate on individual issues, but in reality won’t have the support to mount any serious challenges.
I would have added Tracey Crouch to the rebel list but the prime minister made her sports minister, a job at which she is so far excelling. Though even from those lofty heights, Crouch made known her total opposition to the proposed hunting bill. It was partly her intervention both publicly and behind the scenes that killed it off. Quite an achievement.
The most pressing issue facing the prime minister when parliament returns in September will be whether to hold a vote on authorising military action in Syria. Cameron is still scarred by Ed Miliband’s duplicity the last time this issue came up in 2013. If he’s wise he will hold the vote in early September before the Labour leadership election result, but he will know that the Tory rebels from 2013 won’t be easily persuaded.
Of the 30 Tory MPs who rebelled then, all but three of them are still in the Commons. They include Julian Lewis and Crispin Blunt, the new respective chairmen of the defence and foreign affairs select committees. Of the 30 rebels, 15 of them were MPs elected in 2010 and it’s a fair bet that there will be quite a few of the 2015 intake who will take some convincing now that they have found their feet and aren’t in awe of the place, or the whips for that matter.
But like their 2010 colleagues, the 2015 intake tend to act in concert, slightly to the irritation of their older colleagues. They do it because they recognise that as a group they can have more influence. However, one new MP made clear that it would be a very rare occasion indeed where they acted together to force the government to retreat. “We got elected by our own hard work but also on the backs of Cameron and [George] Osborne and we know that.”
The opposition to Cameron can be divided into three groups — those who hate him for their own personal reasons, those who have never been given ministerial jobs, and those who have been sacked from ministerial jobs. The task of the chief whip, Mark Harper, is to ensure that those three groups never join forces.
It’s amazing what a majority of 12 can do to concentrate the minds of Tory MPs. This is a very different parliament from that of 1992-97, when John Major also had a small majority and was assailed by the flapping white coats of his various “bastards”. Of course there are still divisions, but the main difference between now and then is that the Tory party is 95% Eurosceptic.
I promised myself that I would get to the end of this article without quoting Lord Kilmuir’s belief that “loyalty is the secret weapon of the Conservative party” but I’ve clearly failed. It has never seemed like that throughout my adult life. But maybe, just maybe, the Tory party is about to revert to type. David Cameron can but hope.