Joe Murphy has a rather amusing story in the Standard this afternoon about Tory malcontents’ latest manoeuvres against the Prime Minister. He reports several MPs saying Cameron will need to meet five key tests in order to secure his position as leader. How very democratic of them, measuring the Prime Minister’s performance against a set of targets, rather than just saying they don’t like him, or comparing him to a chambermaid.
But when you read what those targets are, you see the problem that the Prime Minister has with his backbenches. This is what Joe’s story says:
Several MPs said Mr Cameron needs to pass five “key tests” over the next three months: A victory over the Lib Dems in the Eastleigh by-election, avoiding wipe-out in May council elections, preserving Britain’s AAA credit rating, averting a triple-dip recession and a successful spring Budget. “If all these went badly together, it could create an unstable situation,” said a Tory MP.
Now, Grant Shapps and his team are already on a war footing for the Eastleigh by-election. But senior Tories involved in the campaigns side of things are also refusing to entertain great delusions of success in the May council elections, which include all 27 county councils. The next two targets of retaining the AAA credit rating and avoiding a triple-dip recession don’t look particularly hopeful. As for the Budget, well, Osborne is unlikely to be taking any big overseas trips just before this year’s budget as he did in 2012, or indeed trusting the ‘wisdom’ of his Treasury civil servants on the benefits of taxing pasties. The Budget is the most crucial: the party would still face significant problems if a second Budget unravels as it did last year without any of the other issues on this list going badly wrong.
The point is that this list sets a tight deadline for Cameron on ‘healing the economy’ and reviving his party’s fortunes when the mid-term doldrums are still very much in evidence. Osborne might have been unwise to set so much store by Britain’s credit rating, and a triple-dip recession could well rest on initial estimates from the ONS that will be revised and which are affected by one-off factors such as the closure of a North Sea oil field, as it was for the most recent set of GDP figures.
More sanguine Tories, even those who might fancy a crack at the leadership at some point, would be happy with some upturn in fortunes in the six to nine months before the general election. And the more important thing is that voters feel the economy is improving because the squeeze on their living standards has weakened a little. This matters far more than a couple of percentage points on an ONS statistical release. There is also the suspicion among Cameron loyalists that those who are generally disaffected did their best to make last night’s rebellion as big as possible to send a message to the leadership, regardless of their views on the issue itself.
But it’s difficult to see this list as one drawn up by MPs keen to give the Prime Minister any benefit of the doubt at all. For one thing, it doesn’t mention Europe, as though Cameron’s momentous speech on the subject just a few weeks ago never happened. It looks a little like they’re setting him up to fail.