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If Cameron is to defuse Leigh's criticisms, he must get on the front foot over renegotiation

By Paul Goodman
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Cynics will say that now Edward Leigh has his knighthood in his pocket (so to speak), he will feel free to be as openly critical of the Government as he likes.  But I think this would be to mis-read the significance of his sweeping dismissal on this site today of the Queen's Speech as "the weakest legislative programme in recent memory", and his warning that "unless there is a change of course, and a firming-up of our Conservative instincts, we could lose the election".  He writes: "A group of like-minded Members of Parliament – the Centre-Right Steering Group – have been coming together in recent weeks to question the path the leadership are taking and to scrutinise their policies".

The steering group brings together some of the main groups on the centre-right of the Party - including Cornerstone and the No Turning Back Group.  It is likely that some of its key members will have been aware of Leigh's article in advance of publication.  And David Cameron is acutely aware that views of his leadership on the Party's centre-right range from the loyally critical to the contemptuously hostile: hence his recent appointment of John Hayes, who co-founded Cornerstone with Leigh, to Downing Street as his Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Signs of economic recovery and of progress in the polls, and attempts by the Prime Minister to reach out to his right (such as the masterminding of James Wharton's EU referendum bill) seem to have done nothing to pacify some of Cameron's critics, for whose grievances he must take some of the blame.  I believe that Leigh is right on some points (same-sex marriage, HS2) and wrong on others (tax and spending).  David Cameron isn't going to tear up his election pledges, and un-ring fence aid and NHS spending.  So to suggest that he does is a waste of breath.

In which case, the economies that Leigh wants - and for which he has such a keen eye in his role as a former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee - wouldn't be enough to deliver tax cuts on the scale he implies.  The Government would need billions of pounds in savings, not millions - and to find them, it would need drastically to re-think the role of state, along the lines set out by Harry Phibbs set out recently on this site, and pursued by Liam Fox in a recent speech in which he praised our Local Government correspondent.

I am all for such a re-think - ConservativeHome is one of the few centre-right publications to have run a series on how to scale back public spending further - but, when it comes to cutting spending, much of the right is all mouth and no trousers.  All in all, Leigh's worry about "a percentage of our people [peeling] away to the right" is absolutely correct but, if such imagery is to be used, David Cameron must worry no less about the Party's appeal to the centre.  Successful conservative leaders abroad, such as Stephen Harper, appeal to both at the same time.

The leitmotif of this site since it was set up has been that to campaign on such Tory staple issues as tax and Europe is necessary but not sufficent.  To maintain power, it must recognise that most of the seats it needs to win and hold are urban and suburban ones in the midlands and north, where the public sector is larger, selling a scale-back of the state is more difficult, and voters (as they are elsewhere) are at least as concerned about, say the NHS as the EU  - to put it mildly.  Leigh places an electoral stress on the issue that the polling evidence doesn't justify.

But in doing so, he sends an important message to Downing Street.  Only a majority Conservative Government can deliver the In/Out referendum to which David Cameron is committed.  The promise of the latter has satisfied some of the Prime Minister's former critics on the EU who simply want Out.  But it hasn't quelled the appetite of many of his backbenchers for a major renegotiation, and Leigh's views are an eloquent expression of them.  If Cameron delays setting out his own view until late next year, he risks a destabilising row about its scale and ambition during the run-up to an election.  Better for him and everyone else to have it sooner rather than later, rather than let the matter drift through inertia and irresolution.


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