That late Westminster rogue and eccentric Lord Boothby once observed that ‘the Tory Party are ruthless’ when it comes to disposing of a leader; there rarely seems room for sentiment if the rank and file have decided El Presidente has to go. Unlike Labour’s dithering with Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and (it has to be said) Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservatives get on with it. Rumours of coups or challenges don’t linger like a bad smell for weeks and weeks before evaporating into the ether, as is the case with their opponents across the dispatch box. Past records count for little when the decision has been made.
Iain Duncan Smith was axed before he’d even fought a General Election; Ted Heath was deposed even though he’d won one; John Major pre-empted the axe by resigning as leader and then successfully standing for re-election; and most notoriously of all, the Tories even toppled Thatcher from her throne after she had led the party to three successive General Election victories. None of this history bodes well for David Cameron. He became Prime Minister by default in 2010 and had to cobble together an administration by forming Britain’s first peacetime coalition since the Second World War; he may have won the Conservatives their first General Election for 23 years in 2015, but a meagre majority of 12 can easily be whittled down, especially when Parliament is now locked into fixed five-year terms.
Cameron perhaps anticipated future storms on the eve of the 2015 General Election campaign by announcing he didn’t intend to serve more than two terms at No.10. This threw up all kinds of excitable permutations on the part of media commentators as to what this premature retirement would entail come the unnamed day when Dave departed Downing Street. Would a leadership election provoke a General Election? Would the succession be smooth or bitter, depending on the successor? Then again, it’s possible Cameron’s inside knowledge of a forthcoming EU Referendum may have enabled him to prepare for an earlier exit than he might have wished for. Granting his Cabinet the suspension of collective responsibility was unavoidable if a fair debate was to be achieved in the weeks leading up to June 23, but it has also allowed simmering discontent with Cameron’s Premiership to bubble up to the front pages in a way that normal circumstances would never have permitted.
In comparison to Harold Wilson’s shrewd invisibility during the 1975 EEC Referendum campaign – when he kept a discreet distance whilst his divided Cabinet argued amongst themselves – Cameron has been at the forefront of this year’s Remain debate; it could be because, unlike 41 years ago, what was then called the ‘Yes’ camp seem less certain of a guaranteed victory now than they did in 1975. As Prime Minister, Dave clearly reckons the Remain team require his statesmanship clout if they are to sidestep defeat; having narrowly avoided being the man who presided over the break-up of the United Kingdom during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, Cameron seems to believe if he can avoid a Brexit scenario when backing the opposite opinion, he might just extend his time at the top to a full second term. The prospect of the vote going against him would probably make his position as Prime Minister untenable, and his detractors within the Tory Party know it.
He has had as many critics in Tory circles as outside of them during his eleven years as leader; some, such as columnist Peter Hitchens, have attacked Cameron’s now-discarded claim to being ‘the heir to Blair’ from virtually day one and have never let him forget the now-embarrassing boast. One of the more recurrent criticisms of Cameron is that he doesn’t appear to stand for or fundamentally believe in anything; he himself admitted he was ‘not a deeply ideological person’ before finding himself with genuine power, and one has to at least condone his honesty, for this statement has never been contradicted by actions. After Thatcher, conviction politicians of the most bloody-minded persuasion have largely lingered on the backbenches as the desperate fear of being rejected by the electorate has permeated the highest echelons of British politics; whichever way the wind appears to be blowing, that’s the way our leaders are going. Even Corbyn has been forced to refute decades of Euro-scepticism now that he’s somehow at the head of the Labour table.
The manner in which the Leave section of Cameron’s Cabinet have personally aimed their anti-EU criticisms at him has the ring of a school ‘away week’ whereby the teachers reluctantly submit to a more casual relationship with their pupils and suffer the indignity of being addressed by their Christian name rather than the obligatory ‘Sir’. But there has been a remarkable savagery from some of the men and women Dave made Ministers that suggests the most vocal will be in for a frosty reception in the Cabinet Office on June 24 if the vote goes in Cameron’s favour. Having said that, I doubt any of them would have exhibited such a cocky lack of respect for their leader if they didn’t believe victory will be theirs come Referendum day. Whether they admit it or not, they’re already backing Boris; and if the whole campaign is to avoid being hijacked by a Tory Civil War, perhaps Dave should fall on his sword whatever the result. History’s judgement may well be a little kinder if he does so.
© The Editor