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A Good Week For The Backbenches

Last Updated: Friday, May 10th, 2013

Unsurprisingly, the run-up to the Queen’s Speech was dominated by analysis and debate spurred by the local election results. Everyone expected more robust language on the EU issue from senior Conservatives as a form of reputational first aid to staunch the wounds inflicted by Nigel Farage.

Few would have predicted Lord Lawson’s decision to announce his conversion to the Better Off Out cause or the sympathetic hearing he was given by the media, though. The floodgates have opened, and big beasts such as Lord Lamont and Michael Portillo have aligned themselves with a viewpoint that only a few years ago was barely discussed in Westminster. The Queen’s Speech was not just dominated but almost eclipsed by the EU debate.

There are dozens of Conservative backbenchers who privately agree with the former Chancellor that the negotiations are likely to fail, leaving “Out” as the only option.  Most prefer for reasons of political strategy or personal positioning to press for greater euroscepticism within the Prime Minister’s stated optimistic position of negotiation followed by a referendum.

That is not to say they simply line up behind him, though. Many of their number may well back the amendment to the Queen’s Speech in favour of an EU Referendum Bill, should it come to a vote (John Baron MP, its proposer, is yet to decided whether to force a division). Some are doing so on principle to bring forward the timing or alter the process of David Cameron’s renegotiation, but others are doing so because they believe it will help to reassure the electorate that this time a “cast-iron” referendum pledge will not be broken down for scrap.

The amendment is part of a wider shift of power from the leadership to the backbenches. The readmission of Nadine Dorries to the Tory fold on Wednesday righted what many of the Prime Minister’s MPs had long complained was an unjustly harsh punishment for her trip to the jungle.

Had it happened a few weeks ago, the return of Mid-Bedforshire’s prodigal daughter could have been portrayed as a magnanimous, sensible step. Delaying it to a few days after a less than glorious bout of local elections allowed some to feel they had triumphed against the whips. Far from stooping to conquer, the leadership – it is felt – has been conquered from below.

The reality is that the Chief Whip has long intended to end her exile, but the perception on the backbenches is of a victorious rebellion. This was no defeat, but it was certainly a damaging delay.

The timing allowed Nadine Dorries to take immediate advantage of her (perhaps temporary) whip-proof status, and within 24 hours she had signed the EU Referendum amendment and toured broadcast studios to urge her colleagues to do likewise.

All of this certainly means the balance of power within the Conservative Parliamentary Party has shifted. The Prime Minister’s strategy has moved accordingly, as can be seen by the free vote on the EU amendment which he has offered not only to backbenchers but apparently to ministers, too. That attitude of relaxation – particularly on topics that were previously no-go areas due to Liberal Democrat disapproval – is set to continue.

At the same time, Chris Grayling and others have begun to present hard-bitten policies which will please MPs and activists who want to see a more conservative agenda from the Government.

What the week’s events emphatically do not mean is that a leadership challenge is near. It has been a rocky ride, but the Prime Minister has passed through the period of maximum danger. There were no senior figures flouncing off stage once the local election results were out, and there has been no whispering campaign in support of any alternative candidate. He may be changing his party management style, but he won’t be changing his job title any time soon.

By Mark Wallace

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

Lord Ashcroft: CND are not the best people to ask what Scots think of Trident “In the event of Scotland becoming independent, only half of Scots thought Britain’s nuclear weapons should cease to be based at Faslane; 35 per cent would be happy to see the UK lease the naval base, with 15 per cent undecided. Again, those in favour of independence opposed the idea by more than two to one. Overall, only a quarter of Scots thought Britain did not need nuclear weapons during the Cold War and does not need them today. More than a fifth said the need is lower than during the Cold War, while for nearly two fifths Britain needs nuclear weapons just as much as before (29 per cent) or even more (10 per cent): hardly a picture of overwhelming opposition.” Read more: http://is.gd/51ILA

Roger Scruton: Truth in politics “The absurd insults hurled at UKIP and its supporters have at last done their work, and the Conservative Party has been forced to wake up to the fact that you can no longer conceal the truth from the people. Membership of the EU brings benefits. But it also means that our borders are now infinitely porous, that our national assets (the welfare system included) are no longer ours, and that our government is powerless to pursue the national interest. It is not as though this is true only now: it has been true since the ‘Single European Act’ forced through Parliament for no clear reason by Margaret Thatcher. Indeed it was true from the beginning and is the reason why Jean Monnet insisted that the European project should advance behind a sequence of disguises, beginning with the ‘Coal and Steel Community’ of 1951.” Read more: http://is.gd/n0DTqR

Mark Wallace: Our Afghan interpreters should be offered refuge in Britain “There are precedents for bringing the Afghan interpreters within our Military Covenant. When British forces withdrew from Iraq, a similarly lackadaisical approach was taken – until public and political outcry forced the Labour Government to let them in.

As well as the moral responsibility to act, there is a political risk in failing to do the right thing. Many readers will remember the humiliation of Labour minister Phil Woolas at the hands of Joanna Lumley, during her Gurkha campaign. It is hard to imagine any coalition minister wanting to play his part in an Afghan re-run of that fiasco. The Military Covenant rests on familiar, fundamental values – decency, honour, service and gratitude. It would be a grave disservice to those values to turn our backs on these interpreters.” Read more: http://is.gd/ZZpsPA

Paul Goodman: Five ideas for Cameron: 2) Transferable Tax Allowances Now “I would make it clear before and during tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech that George Osborne will, as Downing Street indicated to me recently, bring in transferable tax allowances at the earliest possible opportunity.  (Cameron’s reminder that “I am First Lord of the Treasury” was a dig at his Chancellor’s resistance to the measure.)  Transferable allowances have three big pluses.  First, they recognise marriage in the tax system.  Second, they would help to reverse the bias against one-earner couples in the Coalition’s childcare plans.  Finally, their introduction is promised in the Coalition Agreement.  No-one could fairly claim that Cameron was making some new concession.  And the move would sit neatly alongside the plans to help women and carers that we ready this morning will be annnounced in the Queen’s Speech.  Read more: http://is.gd/q0NXdr

ConservativeHome poll: A third of Conservative Party members want an electoral pact with UKIP in 2015 “They divide a third, a third, and a third in our latest survey, issued last Friday morning, about whether to treat UKIP as a friend or enemy when the general election comes in 2015. 34% believe that the party should form a pact with UKIP for the poll. 33% believe that it shouldn’t. And 33% want to wait and see. Asked if they believed that such a pact will be formed for 2015, 10% of Tory member respondents said Yes, 53% said No and 37% said that the leadership will wait and see. Understandably, the leadership’s position is that there should be no pact with UKIP (or anyone else). So only a third of members are lined up behind it. To write that this evidence suggests that there’s a big gap between Downing Street’s views and those of Party members would be an understatement.” Read more: http://is.gd/TPgTBr

John Redwood MP: Why we need a referendum now – to give Mr Cameron the authority to create a new relationship with the EU “It is no good the Government saying that it will just try a bit harder within the current broken framework. The odd power back here, the odd concession there will not be enough. The Mandate Referendum should ask: “Do you want the UK government to negotiate a new relationship with the EU based on trade and political co-operation?” I think 80% would vote Yes, giving the government a strong mandate to negotiate a sensible outcome. The result of the negotiation should also be put to the people, to decide whether to accept the new deal or simply leave. That way the EU has every reason to come up with something good, as Germany would not want to lose her lucrative trade with the UK.” Read more: http://is.gd/0UiTYn

Jackie Doyle-Price MP: The way to fight UKIP is to knock on doors – not knock each other “The fact is that this Country cannot afford another Labour Government.  And it is incumbent on all of us who have the privilege of representing the Conservative Party to work towards attaining that majority.  On polling day, an Essex newspaper carried a letter from the MP for Billericay which was critical of the Prime Minister and as good as invited Conservatives to vote UKIP.  It is unsurprising then that so many then did.  There is no room for self-indulgence which serves only to damage the Conservative brand.  It is very easy to put out tweets that say ‘look at me’ but think on.  Winning the battle will require focus, discipline, strong messages and hard work.  It is time to stop fighting each other and take the battle to the doorsteps.” Read more: http://is.gd/TM2PYO

 

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