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Class war on the Conservative benches

by Paul Goodman

David Cameron 2010 open neck serious I reported last Wednesday that the 1922 Committee had its worst weekly meeting in recent years.  Over 20 Conservative MPs queued up to scrag Sir George Young over IPSA.  Caroline Spelman, who was due to speak about her departmental responsibilities, was kept waiting for 50 minutes.  The Whips were straight on the phone to Downing Street afterwards.

The storm was still raging a day later, when the Commons voted on tuition fees.  Lobby journalists picked it up, with one describing the atmosphere as "nuclear".  Whips threatened recalcitrant MPs with non-selection when new constituencies are drawn up after the Commons seat reduction.  David Cameron saw potential rebels in person.  George Osborne gave one rebel "the hairdryer treatment".

The cloud which presaged these events - "no bigger than a man's hand" - was the recent release of MPs' office cost details.  Many new MPs gave their predecessors a kicking over expense claims.  Now the boot is on the other foot, and they in turn are being roughed up by local opponents, not to mention the local press.  Some, inexplicably, are surprised.  And the hurricane seems to have caught party managers unawares.

In short, Tory MPs' anger over IPSA is the key ingredient in a poisonous cocktail for David Cameron.  Some of them -    
  • Are unhappy about policy.  The right believes that William Hague and Theresa May have granted too many new powers to the EU, that Ken Clarke is soft on criminals, and that Vince Cable has a veto on tax cuts.  It also suspects that the Prime Minister's manovering to replace (to borrow Tim's classifications for a moment), mainstream conservatism with liberal conservatism - thereby isolating his right, strengthening his left and reworking the Macmillan conservatism of the 1950s into a modernised, dominant form.  Furthermore, the front bench's centre of gravity is left-of-Tory-centre, and this hasn't gone unnoticed.
  • Have personal grudges against Cameron.  Over 25 former Shadow Ministers have been sidelined.  Liberal Democrats replaced them on the Government front bench.  Some of them are furious that their toil in Opposition has come to nothing.  One former Shadow Minister, Julian Lewis, made a vehement speech during last Thursday's debate against the Government's proposals.
  • If they're older, resent the Prime Minister's handling of the expenses scandal during the last Parliament.  They believe that they were made to pay back money, and that other MPs were in effect sacked, in order to save the leadership's face and skin.
  • If they're younger, dislike the Commons culture and distrust the Cameron project.  Most new Conservative MPs weren't on the A-list.  Some are baffled by the hierarchical ways of the Commons, being used to more collaborative ways of working.  Their reflexes are less deferential than those of previous generations.  And there's nothing to stop them quitting the Commons mid-session, forcing dangerous by-elections - since there's no longer a "golden parachute" leaving payment for MPs.
  • Believe that the Prime Minister's more concerned about the Liberal Democrat MPs than about them.  MPs are sitting later than in the last Parliament.  Some Tories claim that their Liberal Democrat counterparts are "slipped" to leave early more frequently than they are.  Benedict Brogan and Paul Waugh have picked up complaints about the Whips Office, and the detail is worth reading. Many find the Party leadership distant and remote at best.  Whether the Coalition is moving left to prop up Nick Clegg, thus proving Montgomerie's Law of the Coalition, or whether it oscillates leftwards and rightwards, thus demonstrating Goodman's Coalition Dilemma, is in this context irrelevant.  What matters is that many Tory MPs believe that Cameron is buttering up Clegg while party managers are dressing them down.
  • View Cameron and George Osborne as out of touch.  These MPs see the leadership circle as gilded trustafarians, whose private incomes insulate them from the lifestyles of those reliant on their MPs' pay, expenses and pensions.  This gut antagonism is class conflict by another name.  It's remarkable that the Conservative Parliamentary Party, of all institutions, has come to this.  But such is the effect of the professionalisation of the Commons: as outside interests are restricted and taxpayer funding squeezed, a gap's opening up between MPs with private means and those without.  This is perilous territory for the Prime Minister.  Labour's long been trying to paint Team Cameron as creatures of privilege.  If Downing Street can't persuade some of its own MPs that this is untrue, will it be able to persuade anyone else?

These problems have big implications for the way Team Cameron handle policy, personel, whipping, relations with the Parliamentary Party, and the IPSA issue.  The last is the most likely to trigger a revolt, since MPs are more likely to mutiny over pay and rations than policy and direction.

On IPSA, the Prime Minister's choices are to -

  • Try to tough it out with Tory MPs.  After last Wednesday, this is no longer a risk-free option.
  • Help get the Afryie Bill, or something like it, on to the statute book.  But this would be to chance voter and media fury.  Many voters want MPs to be pitched on to the streets, to live like extras in Les Miserables.  And Miliband might move to exploit the unpopularity of such a gambit.
  • Find ways of leaning on IPSA, and try to get it to introduce enough of the Afryie measures to keep his backbenchers sweet.  However, there's no guarantee that the IPSA Board, which is due to report at the end of January, will favour such a course.

In other words, the Prime Minister is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't.  I gather that he's to address this week's 1922 Committee meeting.


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