So the Conservative party’s refusal to lurch to the right has, in the past few days, resulted in stories about the European Court of Human Rights, EU referendum legislation, limiting access to benefits for migrants, and NHS tourism. All of these issues preoccupy the right wing of the Conservative party. David Cameron yesterday said the Tories would remain in the Common ground (and Fraser wondered whether the PM had realised that he wasn’t taking his own advice on this), but these briefings suggest Cameron is trying to find common ground with his own MPs as much as with the public. If these policies aren’t about a lurch to the right, they are certainly about a lurch to the backbenches.
Now, some of these ideas – particularly when it comes to changing benefit eligibility criteria to reduce the ‘pull factor’ for Romanian and Bulgarian migrants – may well poll well with the public. But it’s difficult not to read them as being as much about party harmony as they are vote winners. Backbenchers have repeatedly warned ministers that if they don’t get a grip on the migrant issue before the transitional controls lift, the party will do considerable damage to its standing on immigration. There is also a debate on the horizon on the issue which could make things very uncomfortable if the minister answering doesn’t have some work to show backbenchers. The debate has been tabled by Mark Pritchard, and has yet to be allocated a date. But this announcement could be as much about preventing awkward scenes in the voting lobbies as it is about anything outside the Westminster Village.
It’s also interesting that Downing Street is now seriously considering introducing legislation for a referendum in order to maintain the competitive advantage over the other parties before they decide their own European policies. This is something backbenchers have been pushing for over the past year – and there are more than 100 of them by one count – so not only would a Bill help the party on the doorstep when it comes to the European elections in 2014, but it will also cheer up MPs.
But as James reported yesterday in his Mail on Sunday column, those plotting against Cameron, including Adam Afriyie, are waiting for the Budget now. It was one of those five key tests that plotters briefed the Evening Standard on. Cameron has already lost two of those five tests, which shows as much as anything else that MPs have been setting him up to fail. There’s a sense that his attempt to find common ground with MPs could have started quite a lot earlier so that certain backbenchers never had the chance to become thorns in the leadership’s flesh were given the attention and support they needed to stay loyal.