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Jill Kirby

Jill Kirby: The people or the elite? Cameron has made a defining choice

On Monday night, David Cameron forced his parliamentary party to choose between loyalty to their constituents and loyalty to their leader. It was an unnecessary choice, on a topic where the Conservatives are, theoretically at least, of one mind. In using this issue to make a show of leadership, the Prime Minister allied himself firmly with the elite, not the people. In so doing, he put the final seal on a growing perception that he is disdainful of many of his own MPs and the voters they serve. The interview Mr Cameron gave on Tuesday morning, in which he asserted that he felt no rancour towards the rebels, only reinforced this perception; his facial expression was one of barely concealed exasperation and impatience. One cannot help but feel he wanted to tell them all to “calm down, dear.”  Indeed, it is not the sexism inherent in the Prime Minister's parliamentary putdowns that is so unpleasant to behold, but his evident scorn for the trivial nature of the questions being asked of him.     

Since Monday's debate many column inches have been devoted to analysing the composition of the rebellion, in particular noting that 50 of the 81 were Class of 2010. Lacking the deference expected of new MPs, they found their Thatcherite consciences stronger than their desire to please the whips. As many of them rose to speak in the debate, they also made it clear that they felt a strong loyalty to their constituents, to whom they had made such recent promises. Further analysis of those 50 MPs shows that almost three quarters of them (35 in all) actually gained their seats in 2010, rather than simply inheriting Conservative majorities. In other words, they are still fresh from a fight, mostly with Labour. Their majorities are hard-won and often slender; their constituencies lie not in the gentle hills of Oxfordshire and the Home Counties, but in built-up areas of the Midlands and the North. Some of them fought their seats at least once before; many had served as local councillors, worked in local businesses, have roots in their constituencies. They value the trust that their electorate has so recently placed in them. Although a member of the 2005 rather than 2010 intake, Adam Holloway spoke for many of them when he resigned his post on the grounds that he could not break his word to his constituents, having so often told them that he favoured a referendum on Europe.

Elected in an atmosphere of deep distrust following the expenses scandal, many of these MPs are powerfully aware of the need to keep their promises. They promised to get back powers from Europe, not to accept new regulations daily. They promised to defend Britain's interests, not to write cheques to the IMF which would be squandered on a doomed Eurozone project. They promised to govern transparently and to give the people a say, not to turn their back on a People's Petition if it didn't suit them to discuss it. In contrast to their front bench, they do not feel able to ignore those promises in a fruitless quest for approbation from the Euro elite.

These are the MPs whose enthusiasm, determination and sheer hard slog put David Cameron in Downing Street. It is constituencies like theirs that the Tories must win more of, if there is ever to be a Conservative government. The Prime Minister and his companions feel most at home in the leafy acres, surrounded by an admiring crowd of school pals and a few well-heeled daughters of privilege. But as the colours of the electoral map so clearly illustrate, there are no Conservative gains to be made amongst the rolling landscapes of the South. It is the likes of David Nuttall, Heather Wheeler and Karen Lumley who will provide the Conservatives with the majority they need at the next election. That is clearly not a comfortable idea for David Cameron just now, but he needs to work hard to disguise his unease with their rough edges and plain speaking, their fondness for the grammar schools which educated them and, most of all, their pride in the institution of Parliament.

Watching the debate on Monday, I was especially struck by the attachment which the rebels clearly felt towards the House, especially amongst those most recently elected. Those commentators and pollsters who criticise MPs for getting worked up about Europe ignore the value of that strong bond. Deep respect for Parliament should be inherent in every one of its members. It is no wonder if many of them are distressed by the leaking away of its powers. They see a Prime Minister who does not appear to share that distress, and they fear that in his eagerness to join the international elite he will postpone the showdown that is necessary to defend British interests.

This week, 81 Tory MPs made a choice in favour of democracy and against the elite. David Cameron made a different choice. In 2015, will he come to regret it?


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