David Cameron must listen to his MPs

Allister Heath
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ou imagine that yesterday’s mass rebellion by Eurosceptic Tory MPs is only of interest to anoraks, think again. It demonstrates that there are now three parties in the coalition: the anti-Cameron Tory rebels who will be voting against him at every opportunity; the centrist Cameron Tories, many of whom actually agree with the rebels but are pro-leadership out of self-interest; and the Liberal Democrats. This will have a profound impact on British politics – and hence on the prospects for economic and public service reform, as well of course as on Britain’s relationship with the EU. Yesterday’s events are another reason – in addition to the Eurozone crisis, the dramatic slowdown in the UK economy, increasing unemployment and elevated inflation – to think that the chances of the coalition surviving for the whole five-year term are not as great as most people – especially in the financial markets – believe.

Several motives are fuelling the rebels. Many disagree with the government on ideological grounds; not all politicians are unprincipled. Many MPs are genuinely angry that nobody under the age of 54 has ever been asked their opinion on the UK’s relationship with the EU, even though it now accounts for such a large proportion of the laws that affect people’s daily lives and the competitiveness of the British economy. I have attended private events where all the MPs present – including members of the 2010 intake – openly disagreed with coalition policy on tax, regulation, Europe and much else besides, preferring instead far more radical action.

Others resent what they claim to be the snooty, elitist attitude of those around the Prime Minister; they feel that Cameron’s inner circle dislikes most Tory MPs and activists – and are happy to reciprocate. Some of this is down to class war. Many others blame Cameron for losing what ought to have been an unlosable general election, accusing him of conducting a poor campaign, forcing the Tories into coalition with the Lib Dems. There is even a widespread suspicion that Cameron prefers Lib Dems to Tories and would ideally like to merge the two parties. This strand of opinion is also angry at the composition of the cabinet, which is seen as far too centrist, especially after the resignation of the Thatcherite Liam Fox.

The list of issues goes on and on. The boundary changes, which mean that parliamentary seats are being redrawn and reduced in number, have also angered many MPs; those being forced to find new seats are well aware that they have to listen to the Eurosceptic Tory grass roots who will be determining their fate. Last but not least, many Tory MPs believe that the chances of them being promoted to the government are low: partly because the Lib Dems hold so many positions but (in the case of some male MPs) also because they believe that Cameron is on a drive to promote more women to the cabinet, thus curtailing their own prospects.

The Prime Minister’s response will be to punish and freeze out the dissidents. That is how he has operated in the past. But while there had already been smaller revolts, yesterday’s will open the floodgates. What will happen if the economy flatlines for the next couple of quarters, or even longer? What will happen if Labour’s poll lead grows? Panic will set in, and rebellions will become a way of life for the Tory party. Cameron needs to wake up and change his ways.

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