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Public And Backbench Opinion Are Now In Charge Of The Coalition

Last Updated: Friday, June 29th, 2012

Up until this week David Cameron has avoided talking about what he’d like to do once the Coalition had ended. His view had been that voters don’t believe politicians’ promises and only trust action. Moreover he’s been concerned that talking about what he can’t do because of the Coalition but would do as a Conservative government would make him look impotent. In private he has cited his observations of Barack Obama who has constantly blamed the “do-nothing” Republicans in Congress for the lack of progress in the second half of his first term. It might be accurate and reasonable for Obama to blame others but voters don’t want excuses from their political leaders — they want, well, leadership and forward momentum.

Cameron’s plan had been to wait until much closer to the next election before lifting the veil on what he would do if he was no longer cohabiting with Nick Clegg. This week’s speech on welfare reform shows something has changed in his mind. It certainly wasn’t part of a long-planned strategic move. The idea was birthed ten days previously when we were having another of the ‘worst weeks since Cameron entered No10′ (as under Blair, these weeks have more to do with the frenzied media than reality). That particular worst week ever was the week Clegg withdrew support from Jeremy Hunt and Cameron decided he also needed to throw a bone to his restless backbench troops.

Other recent shifts haven’t been so deliberate.

Michael Gove’s O-Levels intervention was not on the Downing Street announcements grid. That was a product of the Education Secretary’s frustration at the centre’s tendency to suffocate his ambitions. He may not be able to deliver on this reform of the examination system but he wants the seed of his idea to at least have a chance to enjoy some sunshine. Gove was one of the most pro-Coalition Tories at the start of the parliament and even toyed with backing AV when he was in that happy phase.  No longer. I don’t know what destination he’ll end up at but he’s travelling away from his initial position and at speed. Unlike George Osborne, I don’t anticipate him U-turning.

Number 11’s latest U-turn, on fuel duty, was neither part of the Number 10 plan nor the Chancellor acting unilaterally. It was forced. Osborne definitely didn’t want to do it. He needs the revenue (you will have seen the latest borrowing data) and only in the last week his inner circle has been telling Tory MPs that using money he doesn’t have – to cut a tax that could easily be overwhelmed by fluctuations in the oil price – was bad politics. But it came to pass. It came to pass because Tory MPs were likely to rebel in large numbers when the 3p rise came up for debate before Parliament began its summer recess. The party leadership isn’t too worried about the increasingly frequent rebellions but defeat wasn’t impossible. Osborne was shocked when he recently met 25 Tory MPs in private at a meeting on this issue and people who are far from the usual suspects made their opposition clear. The Tory Party has had enough of tax rises and further deficit reduction is therefore going to be pretty much 100% on the spending side. Mr Osborne didn’t want the long summer recess to begin with a defeat on a tax measure and be overshadowed by that defeat. U-turn No 36 (according to Fraser Nelson) was executed.

Yesterday Osborne delivered what Lord Lawson described as the hardest-hitting statement that he can remember from his forty years in parliament. The target, of course, was the banks. Speaking to Tory MPs over the last 48 hours I’m picking up rage towards Bob Diamond et al. On ConHome today (http://conho.me/MFJ6Ot) Bruce Anderson said he couldn’t tell the difference between Tory and Labour MPs when listening to them on the radio addressing the issue. Osborne will have heard that too. Even the pro-City Conservative backbenchers who up until now have worried about banker-bashing are wondering if the Left was fundamentally right about the excess. Now that Ed Balls has called for a public inquiry into the banks the Coalition’s leadership won’t want to look behind the curve. It will, however, also be nervous about following the Leveson pattern. In that period Cameron didn’t want to look cosy with Murdoch and so matched Labour’s anger. It might have been the right thing to do. It really might. What Cameron knows now, however, is that he created powerful enemies in the press who have taken their revenge on an almost daily basis. His government has also been hugely distracted by the inquiry.

Number 10 might hesitate therefore before taking big actions but on balance I don’t expect much hesitation. This is the government that is super-sensitive to the public mood, whether on petrol or papers, and this probably won’t be an exception. A party that is dogged by the suspicion that it is in the pockets of rich City donors won’t want that impression reinforced. It may even see Libor-gate as an opportunity to establish some populist credentials. Even if action is necessary I can’t believe it will do a Tory leader much good. Labour will always outbid Conservatives on taxing the rich, regulating the City, cracking down on tax dodgers. What the saga will do is further distract the Coalition from what Conservative governments generally do best and are rewarded for – economic reform.  All very depressing.

Meanwhile, of course, we’ll almost certainly get an inquiry along the lines of the one Balls has just called for. (http://conho.me/MFIW9T).

By Tim Montgomerie

  

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

100 Tory MPs have called for a referendum on the EU in the next parliament: “More MPs have signed this letter than voted in last year’s rebellion ‘of the 81′. John Redwood claimed this week that a vote on Europe is the number one demand of grassroots Tories. That certainly chimes with what we find in our polling of party members. Conservative frontbenchers may not be able to sign letters to David Cameron but my guess is that they aren’t very different in their worldview. Earlier this month policing minister Nick Herbert stated that it was “ultimately right” for the British people to have a referendum to “resettle [our] relationship” with the EU.” More via http://conho.me/KOekGn

“The day of reckoning is approaching” — Tory MEP Syed Kamall is the latest to warn that withdrawal from the could be “in the offing” — http://conho.me/MFJWhb

Tory appetite for further deficit-reducing tax rises may be exhausted: In the context of stopping the fuel duty hike — “An even greater proportion would like more of these tax measures, however – seeing them as economy-boosting. 78% agreed that “we need more tax cuts like this, funded by faster spending cuts”. Just 15% disagreed. There was much more support for tax cuts than for reducing borrowing. 27% agreed that “the money that will be spent on this tax cut should have been used to cut borrowing”. 60% disagreed. I find this particularly interesting. It’s further evidence that the party grassroots sees cutting the tax burden as a goal of similar urgency and importance to deficit reduction.” More via http://conho.me/MU3nBV

What to do about the bankers? “Thoughtful MPs such as David Ruffley and commentators such as Iain Martin have proposed a public inquiry.  We have enquiries, the latter wrote yesterday, “when a hospital trust lets down its patients, or when a transport company kills its passengers, or when a massive intelligence failure leads to war” – so why not for the banking collapse, too?  The aim would be less to produce recommendations than to purge the stables: to bring the truth to light, to name and shame the guilty, to create a ventilation system for public anger, and to allow catharsis to follow nemesis as it properly should.  We’ve had the vanities.  Now should come the public bonfire.” More via http://conho.me/MFIW9T

Fascinating short piece from Adam Afriyie MP on encouraging innovation in governmenthttp://conho.me/MFJWhb

Also writing for ConHome, Luke Coffey, former SpAd to Liam Fox, underlined the importance of replacing Tridenthttp://conho.me/LFAhXM

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