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To Date, Cameron Has Been Able To Rely On The Loyalty Of His Cabinet. The Significance Of This Week’s Events Is That It Can Longer Be Taken For Granted.

Last Updated: Friday, March 8th, 2013

I have rarely known a stranger week in the Westminster Village.  It began with speculation about whether Theresa May had broken ranks with Downing Street that she had briefed the Mail on Sunday that she wants Britain out of the ECHR…and with speculation that Philip Hammond had also cut loose from Downing Street by arguing that the welfare budget should be cut instead of his own.

By the middle of it, sober political commentators were frenziedly asking whether the two Ministers had acted in concert, and are preparing the ground for the so-called “Top Gear” dream ticket (May & Hammond – geddit, as they say in the tabloids?) in concert with Chris Grayling, the third member of the so-called National Union of Ministers, which wants to see the welfare budget take some of the pain marked out for them in the spending review.

And by the end, one right-wing businessman once close to the Conservatives was reported to have been dining with Nigel Farage (Rupert Murdoch) and another right-wing businessman who is in a similar position to have met with Ed Miliband.  What does it all mean for David Cameron and the Government – and has the Village got recent events out of proportion?

Let’s start with May.  I don’t believe that she or her team gave last week’s story to the Mail on Sunday.  The Home Secretary, who tomorrow addresses a ConservativeHome conference, is a more careful operator.  Nor do I think it is likely that a rival (George Osborne or his team) leaked the story to harm her.  The most plausible explanation is that she was thinking of making such an announcement, and it leaked.

This is where Hammond comes in.  If May didn’t seek to announce her views on the ECHR, it follows that there was no co-ordination with Hammond – and, therefore, no plot.  But the real significance of the May story and Hammond’s views is that neither Minister has backed off.  Hammond repeated his view after being reproved by Danny Alexander in Cabinet.  May has done nothing to dampen the speculation.

My view is that the Village is feeding on a vacuum at the centre of events.  It is unusual for a Prime Minister to make a major speech defending his Chancellor’s economic strategy in advance of the budget – which is what happened yesterday.  But the critical event is not so much the budget as the spending round.  In a perfect world, Cameron and Osborne would probably go along with welfare budgets cuts.

This is especially true of the Chancellor, who says in private that he would, if the Conservatives had been in government alone, have made deeper cuts to welfare.  And it is not as though Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, stands in May and Hammond’s way: he is apparently willing to make further cuts in child benefit, for example.

No, the problem is the Liberal Democrats, who won’t accept new welfare cuts and who are flirting openly with a Labour-LibDem coalition post-2015.  This is the real significance of Vince Cable’s long article for the New Statesman this week, the gist of which was that more borrowing risked higher interest rates until recently, but that this risk may now have changed – a position which opens up political room for a deal with Labour.

I said at the start of this article that I have rarely known a stranger week in the Village.  But if a parallel in feel and mood is accurate at all, I would draw one with John Major’s last few years in Government – when he gradually lost control of his own party and his own Cabinet.  By the end of his term of office, Michael Portillo was openly “on manoevres”, as Tory MPs say in the tearoom.

In her quiet way, May certainly is.  Hammond may also be: he is certainly not prepared to see his budget cut further without a fight.  To date, one of the key factors helping Cameron had been the unity of his Cabinet – for all the divisions on the backbenches.  The significance of this week is that this unity can no longer be taken for granted.  The Prime Minister’s backbench enemies are watching closely.

By Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

Lord Ashcroft: Despite everything, there is still a strong sense that Lib Dems stand for fairness and ordinary people: “The Lib Dem dilemma, then, is to decide how far to go in trying to win back people who have largely made up their minds to support Ed Miliband, and indeed only voted Lib Dem in the first place as a left-wing alternative to Labour. The more they do so, the less success they will have with the smaller but much more biddable moderate voters, who are also open to the Conservatives, want the party to play a constructive part in government and would be unimpressed with the antics that the angry left require. The party will no doubt make the most of its local credentials wherever it can. This will certainly weigh with some voters, but we found that when it came to a general election the main effect of a popular MP was to win the party a hearing on wider arguments about the party’s role in government; it would not often be a decisive factor for those reconsidering their vote, particularly for those whose sympathies lie with Labour.” Read more: http://is.gd/eUhG4a

Tim Montgomerie: Cameron and a united Conservative Party can still do well at the next election: “A change of Tory leader would be very silly. Despite some significant faults Cameron remains much more credibly Prime Ministerial than Ed Miliband or, indeed, nearly every other Tory. Because there’s no obvious successor a leadership election could be protracted and messy. The public would watch the Conservative Party arguing with itself at a time of grave economic difficulty and it would be disgusted. A leadership election might even bring the Coalition down as candidates vied with each other to resist or reject key components of the Coalition Agreement. Only one candidate could conceivably make a real difference to Tory prospects and that’s Boris Johnson but he’s not in parliament.” Read more: http://is.gd/xciVcq

Paul Goodman: Is Number Ten so defensive over the NHS that it has forgotten how to attack? (As, over Mid-Staffs, it should.): “It does Downing Street credit that it is more fair-minded than in Blair’s day.  (Not that its motives are all dispassionate: the Government seems to want to keep David Nicholson to help ensure that the “Nicholson Challenge” is met.)  And when it does start hunting for scapegoats, the results are a sorry spectacle: consider the stripping of Fred Goodwin’s knighthood, which set a disturbing precedent.  But Steve Barclay in today’s Telegraph and Sarah Wollaston in the same paper yesterday were right: Mid-Staffs showed systemic failure, for which the man at the top – who’s still in charge – should be held responsible.” Read more: http://is.gd/38v5K7

Paul Goodman: The next Tory leadership election is under way: “May is a cautious operator who tends to works with her colleagues rather than against them – as her role in the “National Union of Ministers” suggests.  This is why I suspect she didn’t brief the weekend papers about Britain leaving the ECHR.  Such a move would have been a risky escalation of the discreet profile-raising exercise that she has been undertaking for some time.  But that exercise does show that she is positioning herself to be ready for a tilt at the leadership after 2015.  Hammond is emerging as a pivotal figure on the centre-right of the Cabinet.  Though less identified with the right than Iain Duncan Smith or Owen Paterson, he is none the less a heavyweight with real business experience (and has not taken Cameron’s line on same-sex marriage).  Grayling sits in much the same political space, and will also want to keep his options open.” Read more: http://is.gd/R3RIj0

Pete Hoskin: To Hell with the Lib Dems? Nope… “Is it really wise for the Tory leadership to even risk the Lib Dems “pulling the plug” right now? An election may not be welcomed by Mr Clegg’s party at the moment, but the same could be said for David Cameron’s. The Ukip threat hasn’t been nullified; Labour are 10 points ahead in the polls – this is not propitious ground for electoral brinkmanship. And even if it didn’t come to an election, constantly undermining the Lib Dems would surely weaken Nick Clegg’s leadership, with the negative consequences I noted last week. The fundamental point is that it could make a Labour government more likely – and that would, er, result in even fewer Tory policies being implemented.” Read more: http://is.gd/4Jb1eX

Liam Fox: The Justice and Security Bill will help keep us safe: “At the centre of the Bill lies a realisation that the world of security and intelligence has changed beyond recognition since the days when even the services’ existence went unavowed. They are now governed by statute, and subject to judicial review. It is neither acceptable nor possible for them to avoid proper scrutiny either in the courts, or by Parliament. Yet, the practical tools both of these institutions required to perform their scrutiny functions had been utterly neglected. The result has been an absolute car crash: civil damages claims are now able to be brought against the agencies, but they cannot be resolved because the courts are not able to put in place the safeguards that are needed if they are to look in detail at national security evidence” Read more: http://is.gd/0YQLV6

Thinkers’ Corner: Roger Scruton on Lord Rennard, Cardinal O’Brien and Inappropriate Behaviour: “In most other areas of human life we are well aware of the distinction between crimes and misdemeanours. And, before the days of sexual liberation, we equipped our children with those habits of modesty, reticence and respect that prevented the worst abuses and gave them the means to protect themselves against them. Now, lacking any real understanding of what sex means, we have also lost all sense of proportion. Every offence is at once construed as a crime, with devastating consequences for those who are accused of it. And the worst of it is that conservatives, who should know better, are as confused as everybody else.” Read more: http://is.gd/tFVyeF

By Paul Goodman

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