David Cameron clearly rated Adam Afriyie’s ‘stalking horse’ plot as a sufficiently ridiculous threat to make a joke out of it at Prime Minister’s Questions this week. After their premature outing in the papers last weekend, the plotters might sensibly have gone to ground for some time while Afriyie fended off lunch invitations from journalists trying to get the measure of him.
They’re clearly a determined bunch, plotting to deliver an ultimatum to the Prime Minister in May to replace his Chancellor if the Budget fails to revive the economy. That’s quite some ask. Replacing Osborne would cause panic in the markets: not exactly the best consequence for a coup triggered by economic woes. It would also only be possible if Cameron were suffering from some fatal weakness, given his relationship with Osborne.
What the Afriyie plotters seem perfectly happy to ignore is that Cameron might not be their best mate, but neither is he suffering from some fatal weakness at the moment. He continues to poll above his party (YouGov found 40 per cent of voters think Cameron is doing well as PM, while the Tories command 32 per cent support. Ed Miliband, meanwhile, only gets a 32 per cent approval rating while his party polls 44 per cent). Coming after the Europe speech, which gave the party what it had nearly stopped hoping it would ever get, their machinations appear deeply ungrateful.
So why are they bothering with these plots? As James explained this week when the plot surfaced, there are enough backbenchers who feel outside the magic inner circle that there is a serious discontent problem in the party. This is caused by two main deficiencies in the way the leadership conducts itself:
1. Cameron doesn’t give the impression he is sufficiently interested in many of his backbenchers. Sure, there are some bright sparks, part of that pre-ordained circle James described, but there are many others, bright and eager, who he could put to better use rather than leaving the rebels to make work for idle hands. Now clearly as Prime Minister he doesn’t have time to have cosy coffees with every MP, but even well-behaved backbenchers find Downing Street ‘outreach’ drinks events frustrating as they report Cameron struggles to appear interested in his guests. This is odd: Cameron is exceptionally good at working the room at drinks events, and at taking an interest in his guests when it suits him. A shrinking violet he is not.
2. The whips aren’t doing enough day-to-day parenting of backbenchers. Cameron is too busy to take grumpy MPs for coffee: that job is for the whips, and I’ve explained in greater detail some of the problems with that here.
There’s also the problem caused by reshuffles: anyone overlooked or sacked immediately becomes a target for rebel plotters. To his credit, Cameron has resisted the temptation to move ministers around as much as previous administrations have.
One MP made an interesting point to me this week as we discussed gay marriage. Though they supported the principle, their worry was that while the Europe speech was wonderful, it had come too late for them to be able to take the hit on gay marriage from their constituents. Plus the economy, which is of far greater importance to voters than the other two issues, is not yet providing the firm foundation for MPs to forget the need for tactical voting on issues such as gay marriage.
Though Cameron made a bold pledge last week, and though, as Fraser reported in his Telegraph column recently, the Prime Minister has started 2013 with an impatience and sense of purpose that he seemed to lack last year, this may have come too late.
Rightly or wrongly, there now exists a hardcore of MPs so disaffected that there’s nothing Cameron can do to ever win them back. That is partly because of the neglect problems I listed above, and partly because of the character of the backbenchers in question: they don’t possess the unshakeable loyalty to Brand Tory that some MPs like Claire Perry have. Cameron now has to decide how to target those MPs floating on the margins, who may have rebelled a few times or are keeping their powder dry still but lack the visceral dislike that their hardcore colleagues possess for the Prime Minister.