David Cameron has a tough task ahead of him for this week’s Conservative conference – a task that got a little harder when Ed Miliband surprised almost everyone by producing a cracking speech this week. The Prime Minister has a number of problems to tackle when he arrives in Birmingham. These include a rowdy party growing increasingly agitated about a number of issues including Europe, a chief whip sent in to control said rowdy party whose authority has been undermined before he has even started twisting arms, a chancellor struggling with his own authority on economic policy, and a Mayor determined to steal the show with his own conference speech and his building campaign against Heathrow expansion.
Two senior Conservatives have helpfully dispensed some advice for the Prime Minister today about how he can pull the party back together. Former defence secretary Liam Fox has a piece in the Telegraph in which he tells Cameron that the party needs to ‘reconnect with our own supporters’. He complains:
‘Many of them believe we are dominated by the political agenda of a metropolitan elite, and this sits uneasily with the social conservatism of much of the rest of the country.’
One of the issues that Fox and colleagues feel exemplifies the party’s current pandering to a metropolitan elite is gay marriage. He told Sky News a few months ago that he thought the party shouldn’t focus on an issue that wasn’t a priority for most people in society, and other MPs agree, even if they don’t oppose the legislation itself. I’ve spoken to a couple of Tory supporters of gay civil marriage who feel that Cameron’s push for it to become law has actually done the party damage overall as not only has it upset those social conservative core voters that Fox describes, but it has also flushed out strong opponents like Peter Bone, who have inflamed the debate by saying Cameron’s support for gay marriage makes them want to ‘throw up’.
A bigger issue still is Europe. Fox writes that the threat from UKIP is ‘a chance to produce a defining Conservative position as the truly national party at the next election. We need a renegotiated relationship within a defined time and a referendum at the end. Nothing less will do.’
On that note, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling also has some advice for his boss. He tells the House Magazine that there need to be ‘some symbolic statements’ similar to Cameron’s Brussels veto:
‘Now when I talk about EU veto moments, I don’t mean necessarily more vetos, but I think we will need some symbolic statements between now and the next election that say to the people who voted Conservative at the last election and indeed some of those who voted with their feet and stayed at home – or some of those who voted for UKIP – something that says to them ‘actually we like the idea of a second term majority Conservative Government, we believe and have confidence that it would do the kind of things we want it to do’ and it’s quite important we send messages to that effect.’
What is interesting about these two interventions is that both Grayling and Fox are convinced that taking the party to the right will lessen the electoral threat from UKIP and win the Conservatives the next general election. They are both piling pressure on Cameron to make a commitment that so far he has been very reluctant to do. His latest hint has been that he wants a fresh deal and fresh consent from the British people, but these two are asking for ‘symbolic statements’, presumably ones that lay down exactly what the Prime Minister intends to do.
Cameron still has a little while before 2015 in which to make those statements. But where he has less time is with his own backbenchers. They will be asked to support the party on a number of awkward Europe-related votes this autumn, where we may well see big rebellions, more resignations, and plenty of demands for something definitive from the PM. As David Davis points out in the House magazine this week, Andrew Mitchell’s ongoing troubles over his behaviour at the Downing Street gates will make his job far more difficult. He says:
‘He will have a difficult time. What does a Chief Whip have at his fingertips to deploy normally? Well, a mixture of charm, rewards, appeals to loyalty – all of those are diluted at the moment. There are very few jobs to be given out. They are going to have to steer the Parliamentary party through a time when it is not at all clear that our allies are still going to be our allies. It’s going to be very, very difficult.’