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The grim mood of the Parliamentary Conservative Party

I've said it before and I'll say it again: David Cameron has handled the whole expenses saga very well.  He has understood public anger and he has forced the MPs guilty of the most unacceptable behaviour to stand down.  His clarity of purpose has contrasted hugely with Gordon Brown's dithering response.  Since expenses-gate broke the Conservatives have not lost their opinion poll lead and remain on course for a historic general election victory.

But there is a but and it's a big but.  The Parliamentary Conservative Party is very unhappy.  The anoymous letter earlier this week was one sign of discontent.  David Cameron got another taste of his MPs' anger when he addressed them all on Wednesday.  In terms of electoral politics this discontent may not matter much for now.  Cameron will continue to command public support for the most draconian action against MPs.  "He could shoot us all and the public wouldn't think it enough," one joked.  But MPs have long memories and Cameron will need their support in tougher times.  The gallows humour going around the Commons tea room is that MPs have gone from lobby fodder to cannon fodder.

"I don't need to have behaved illegally or immorally to see my career end in humiliation. Cameron would throw me overboard without a moment's hesitation," one MP said. "But," he continued, "he'll need us to be loyal to him one day but he's not showing much loyalty to us."

MPs' are angry on many levels.  At the heart of their concerns is equity.  They don't think that all MPs are being treated the same.  There is, for example, a lot of sympathy for Peter Viggers.  The Gosport MP was told to quit because of the expenses claim that has come to define the whole affair - his claim for a duck house.  Why, some MPs ask, was Viggers ousted but shadow cabinet members who made much bigger misclaims are allowed to stay in office?

This issue of inconsistency is at the heart of MPs' anxiety.  They are very suspicious of the scrutiny committee that reports this coming week.  One MP described it as a "kangaroo court".  It has no transparent criteria for judging whether an MP is guilty or innocent, he said.  "It's a whip's operation and is fundamentally a political exercise."  They fear that orders to repay from the scrutiny committee will amount to guilty verdicts and may trigger deselection processes if they don't jump first.  "Things in my constituency are just beginning to settle down and the scrutiny committee may put a bonfire under me," one said.

Many MPs fear that Cameron is using the whole expenses saga to get rid of MPs he has never liked or have been unenthusiastic about party modernisation.  Another MP told me that David Cameron understands the hostility towards him of a large number of MPs and that is why he wants as new a parliamentary Conservative Party as possible.

LeaderOfTheOpposition The whole affair has reignited the long standing sense of 'them and us' between the parliamentary party and the powerful 'Leader of the Opposition's office' run by David Cameron and George Osborne in the Norman Shaw building of the Houses of Parliament.  In that office - runs the suspicion - a small group of staffers help David Cameron and George Osborne decide all Tory policy and strategy.

Parliamentary opinion is far from united.  A group of mainly London MPs - notably Stephen Hammond, Greg Hands and Mark Field - plus Douglas Carswell and Ben Wallace want the Tory leader to go even further and faster.

If Cameron wanted to get tougher still he could choose to outlaw any new contracts of employment for spouses and other relatives (existing contracts would not be touched).  He could also take action on MPs' foreign trips.  Action on either front would be supported by the public but would be hated by a lot of MPs. 

One MP's advice to the Conservative leader was to focus from now on on reform of democracy.  Cameron's best moment, this MP believes, was his Open University speech when he talked about devolving power from Europe and from elites to local communities and voters: "Cameron cannot satisfy public anger towards MPs without poisoning the parliamentary party forever. He needs to look forward to rescuing British democracy from the Labour years." 

For Cameron this is a management issue.  A political leader needs many skills.  He needs to be popular in the country.  He needs to have strategic and policy skills.  But part of the job is to lead and motivate his MPs.  Cameron has the unenviable job of undertaking this task during the most difficult of parliamentary crises.

Tim Montgomerie


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