Downing Street is, in the words of one senior aide, in a mood of ‘sober reflection’ about how and why so many things have gone wrong in the past fortnight. The question now is whether the government can expect more of the same for the rest of the year. The answer will turn on two elections in May, the contest for the London mayoralty and the one to choose the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers.
Even those in No. 10 who most dislike Boris Johnson know that his re-election is crucial to their prospects. A Boris triumph would make the last few weeks seem like a blip rather than a permanent shift in the political landscape.
If Labour can’t take the capital, there’ll be a fresh bout of speculation about Ed Miliband’s leadership. Cameron will be able to argue that victory in London shows that the Tories are on course to be in government again after the next election. If Labour wins, on the other hand, the pressure will be off Miliband, and Cameron will begin to look like a one-term prime minister.
In Tory circles, there is mounting confidence that Boris will hold on. Last Friday, Lynton Crosby, Boris’s campaign director, addressed Tory aides in Downing Street. It was, by all accounts, an impressive presentation — one that left several suggesting that Crosby should brought in to run the Conservatives’ political operation. It has left the Tories confident that the Boris campaign will keep Ken Livingstone on the back foot and added to the sense that if the Tories can get their vote out, victory will be theirs.
The irony, as the Miliband camp is quick to point out, is that if the vote in London were a straight referendum on the government, the Tories would — according to the polls — lose. But Ken is a weak candidate and Boris can reach parts of the electorate that other Tories can’t.
After the mayoral election, the 1922 Committee might seem like small beer. But the events of the past few weeks have given the selection of its members a particular significance: for this will answer the question of who speaks for the Tory backbenches.
Loyalist MPs are furious that Cameron’s backbench critics, several of whom are on the executive of the ’22, are claiming that they are the true voice of the parliamentary party. They fume that the malcontents are a small number of opportunistic egotists driven by ignoble motives; their hatred of the Prime Minister and addiction to publicity. The argument about the true nature of the parliamentary party will be settled by the 1922 Committee elections. Those MPs who claim to represent the ‘silent majority’ are planning to cleanse the ’22 of, what they call with some justification, ‘the wreckers’.
But this will be, if there can be such a thing, an inclusive purge. There will be no challenge to the chairman Graham Brady, the vice-chairman Charles Walker or the treasurer Brian Binley, despite all of them having been part of the EU referendum rebellion.
The logic behind this decision is that they have been constructive — not destructive — critics of the leadership. Leaving them alone is also meant to demonstrate that the leadership’s aim is not to neuter the 1922 Committee but to rid it of fringe elements who use their position as a platform from which to attack the Prime Minister.
But these elections are fast turning into a census of the parliamentary party. Every vote that, for instance, the arch-rebel Christopher Chope receives will be a sign of an MP dissatisfied with Cameron’s leadership.
The crucial question is how many ‘wreckers’ there are and how much support they have. Those who know the parliamentary party well think that there is a hard core of a dozen who will oppose almost everything that Cameron does, with 30 others prepared to join forces with them on certain issues.
These numbers matter because they inform how Cameron and his allies think about achieving a Tory majority. There are those close to the Prime Minister who fear the consequences of the Tories winning a small overall majority at the next election. Their worry is that the David Davises and Mark Pritchards of this world would hold them to ransom. It would be John Major and the 1992 parliament all over again.
One confidant of the Prime Minister says that ‘the last week makes you think that a small Tory majority would be impossible’. Indeed, the more the Tory malcontents attack him, the more likely Cameron is to stay closer to Clegg for fear of something worse.
Set against this has to be the Cameroons’ irritation at the constraints of coalition. Cameron knows that to break through with the electorate he has to talk in terms of values. But he also knows that coalition makes that much harder.
No. 10 is readying what it is calling a ‘Conservative values-based agenda’. This will include measures to help families, boost enterprise and promote ‘real fairness’. One part of the fairness agenda is that those on welfare should have to make the same choices as those in work. As part of this, the coalition is considering making young unemployed adults continue to live with their parents by further restricting their entitlement to housing benefit.
The other change in Downing Street concerns Cameron’s own attitude to the job. He is, not before time, moving from being a chairman to a chief executive and is holding a string of meetings to ensure that government policies are being implemented. As one close ally rather crudely puts it, ‘There’ll be a lot more arse-kicking from now on.’
Interestingly, Cameron seems to be changing his attitude to the civil service. Until recently, he has regarded it as untouchable. But his frustrations with the decision-making process during the fuel panic appear to have opened his eyes to its institutional failings. It seems likely that the coalition’s reform plans, due out next month, will be far more radical than expected.
The last fortnight has been a reminder of how quickly politics can turn. But if Cameron learns the right lessons from this experience, then it could turn out to have been the shock to the system that he needed. Far better to realise now what he needs to change than in 2014.