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David Cameron should never be free of the fear that his own MPs might sack him

By Andrew Gimson 
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Screen shot 2013-06-29 at 07.56.29“Conservative Members of Parliament constitute the most elusive and mendacious electorate imaginable.” So says Robin Harris in his excellent new biography of Margaret Thatcher, Not for Turning, when he turns to describing how her own MPs got rid of her. Harris observes that the Conservative Party’s “somewhat bizarre rules” for electing its leader were “originally conceived for when the party was out of power and not intended to displace a sitting Prime Minister”.

In 1989, when the first challenge to Mrs (as she then was) Thatcher was made, all that was required was a “stalking horse”, Sir Anthony Meyer, and two other MPs who proposed and seconded him.  The taboo against challenging a leader who was also Prime Minister was broken by that rebellion, and at the end of the following year Mrs Thatcher was swept away by her own MPs, who were terrified that she was leading them to electoral ruin.

In 1998, when new rules were brought in which gave Conservative Party members the right to choose the new leader from a shortlist of two drawn up by MPs, the opportunity was taken to avert future leadership challenges by what might turn out to be only a handful of MPs. Under these rules, which remain in force, 15 per cent of MPs must write in confidence to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee to demand a vote of confidence on the leader.

This means 46 letters would have to be submitted before a challenge could be mounted to David Cameron. Many Conservative MPs consider this figure to be too low: Paul Goodman has argued as much on this site. By no means all the critics of the rules are unqualified supporters of Mr Cameron. But they think it is seldom difficult to find 15 per cent of backbenchers who are discontented, and that the rule is inherently destabilising.

Nor will anyone who decides to write to Graham Brady, the present Chairman of the ’22, know whether his or her letter is the 46th, or perhaps only the 12th, that has been received. The whole system is an invitation to malcontents with a penchant for making trouble to engage in murky manoeuvres which might mean nothing much, or might lead to the Prime Minister’s downfall. They could at some point precipitate a leadership fight which most Conservatives do not want, and which would greatly damage the party’s standing with the electorate.

I confess that when I first considered this argument for changing the electoral system, I found it conclusive. It seemed to me clear that the threshold ought to be raised to 20 or 25 per cent. Not that there is any prospect of the change being made this side of the general election. For Mr Cameron to request it would look intolerably self-interested. The only time he could have done something was soon after becoming leader himself, and he declined to invest political capital in what seemed at the time like a rather marginal question. Nor is it easy to see why the ’22 should now decide of its own volition that the time has come to reduce the influence of backbenchers. Preparations could, however, be made for a change after the next election.

But on thinking the question through more carefully, I have changed my mind. Our political system thrives on uncertainty: if we take an interest in politics, it is in part because we cannot be sure what is going to happen next. Walter Bagehot makes this point near the start of The English Constitution, where he argues (this is in the 1860s) that British newspapers are better than American ones, because the Westminster Government could fall at any time, so at times of political crisis, public opinion expressed through “effective articles in great journals” can become decisive: “The Times has made many ministries.”

The present coalition has tried to abolish that source of uncertainty, by agreeing that it will carry on until May 2015. But it would be a violation of the spirit of our constitution if Mr Cameron were to regard himself as entirely safe until that time. Our idea of liberty is bound up with the knowledge that we can insult our rulers whenever we feel like it, and can drive them out when they become intolerable. Mr Cameron ought always to feel the spur of uncertainty, and the need to carry people with him. (In today's Daily Express, Patrick O'Flynn lauds the Australian way of ousting a leader, in the wake of the overthrow of Julia Gillard.)

No reasonable person expects a Prime Minister to achieve instant success: but we do expect to be told why what he or she is doing has a fair prospect of eventual success. If Mr Cameron can carry the wider public, his backbenchers will probably tolerate him, even if they do not love him. But if he fails with the wider public, then even a most rigid adherence to the demands of Conservative backbenchers will not be enough to save him.

The case of Sir Anthony Meyer is instructive. He got only 33 votes, but there were another 27 spoilt ballots and abstentions. On top of that, up to 60 MPs who voted for Mrs Thatcher sent her campaign manager a warning that they might not vote for her again. The Prime Minister was being informed that unless she did something about the poll tax, she was in mortal danger. As even her friends admit, she failed to heed this warning. The fault lay not in the Conservative Party’s method for choosing its leader, but in the leader’s refusal to see what peril she was in, even before Geoffrey Howe resigned and Michael Heseltine stood against her.

Of Harris’s profound loyalty to Mrs Thatcher there can be no doubt. But as he himself relates:

"Faced with Heseltine’s challenge, Margaret Thatcher…made no promises to change anything and gave no guide to how she planned to turn things round. She thought instead that she could see off Heseltine, who she believed was as flaky as he was flashy, by standing on a record that she considered self-evidently superior – so self-evidently that it would have been pointless to be seen to be actively soliciting the support of backbenchers who, after all, knew all they needed to know about her.”

In 2003, Iain Duncan Smith became the only Conservative leader to have been deposed after 15 per cent of the party’s MPs wrote requesting a confidence vote. Michael Spicer, who as Chairman of the ’22 received those letters, has given a gripping account of this slow-motion assassination in his diaries, published last year. Once the trickle of anonymous denunciation turned to a flood, it is not evident either that a higher threshold would have saved Duncan Smith, or that he was a gifted enough leader to deserve to be saved. He was finished off with a ruthlessness seldom seen in the Labour Party. But his downfall liberated him to pursue the great cause of welfare reform.

There is no perfect system either for choosing a leader, or for getting rid of one. But Conservatives do not believe perfect systems can ever be a substitute for political judgement. For the time being, Tory MPs judge it would be far more damaging to their own electoral prospects to overthrow, or to try to overthrow, Mr Cameron, than to stand by him.


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