DAVID CAMERON will address Conservative MPs at a hastily-arranged parliamentary party meeting in the commons tonight. If he had won an outright majority, it would have been a tub-thumping affair; around 100 new MPs would have been given a lesson in desk banging, as their leader delivered a valedictory speech.
Tonight’s gathering will be more sober. Cameron will try to rally the troops, pointing out they have won more seats than at any time since 1931 – more than Margaret Thatcher secured in 1979. They’ll play along, of course; there’s a strong chance that he will be the next Prime Minister, with the power to hand out jobs and confer power. But their hearts won’t be in it.
It is unlikely that there will be any detail on the negotiations with the Liberal Democrats. Cameron will reaffirm his support for the first-past-the-post system (but stop short of ruling out a referendum) and confirm his commitment to cutting the deficit.
The real reason Cameron is calling the meeting is because he needs to reassert his authority. Tory MPs are irked at the speed with which he set about wooing the Liberal Democrats in the wake of Friday’s results, without sounding out the rank-and-file.
A significant amount of Tories think that his tendency to rely on a small coterie of advisers – many unelected – was one of the reasons he failed to secure a majority; they aren’t about to stand by while he goes about coalition talks in the same way.
Cameron’s case will not be helped as Tory grandees start to break ranks. Lord Tebbit has already launched a scathing attack, accusing him of squandering a 20 point lead and entering into “love bomb” coalition talks with the Liberal Democrats.
Tebbit wants Cameron to cut off talks, form a minority government, and call another election, probably in October. He has a reputation for baiting whoever is party leader, but other senior Tories secretly agree.
If Cameron can do a deal that doesn’t involve a referendum on electoral reform, he could yet take his party with him. But he’d better act quickly. Rebellion gathers pace over time.