For two months now the Conservative party has been an unusually tranquil ship. What was once the most mutinous vessel in Westminster has, under David Cameron, changed tack and entered new waters without a whisper of the rebellion for which its crew has become infamous. They may disagree with the direction of travel — but after years in the doldrums, it is hard to argue with such progress, whatever the methods.
Cameron has brought the Conservative party its best publicity in a generation, set the political agenda and terrified Labour MPs by moving robustly towards the centre. This has involved asking fellow MPs to abandon policies they have cherished for years, but they have obeyed, spellbound by the audacity and momentum of his first few weeks. But now they want to ask him some questions; they want some explanations.
On Tuesday Lord Ashcroft, party donor and now deputy chairman, invited Conservatives to a meeting in Portcullis House to hear some bad news. In the opinion polls there is little evidence of the Cameron phenomenon spreading much beyond Westminster. There were encouraging signs of progress — target women voters are becoming keener — but the public remains to be convinced that the party is different from the one they rejected last year.
Lord Ashcroft asked for patience: the party has just started a long voyage. But voices of dissent piped up almost immediately — would it not be better to stick to Conservative principles rather than chase polls and tear up so much of the manifesto? It says much about the loyalty Cameron inspires that such comments drew groans from others in the room. But the whispers of disgruntled Conservatives have now become audible once more. First come the major donors, on whom the party is uniquely dependent. Stuart Wheeler has praised Cameron in public — but in private is becoming increasingly less guarded in his despair at policy reversals on grammar schools and health reform and the high priority Cameron attaches to global warming and Third-World poverty. I understand that two other major donors share his concern but have agreed to stay quiet for a year to see if Cameron delivers.
Meanwhile Cameron is hearing the dissent for himself. His dinner on Monday with the No Turning Back group of Thatcherite MPs (whose membership overlaps strikingly with that of the David Davis campaign team) was far from a jovial affair, according to the accounts of two present. The group offered their personal support, but they made clear their dismay at his decision to relegate tax cuts from the political agenda, seeing it as a momentous act of appeasement to New Labour.
Cameron has prepared for this attack. Tax cuts, he says, are not a priority for the public — and Lord Ashcroft has several polls to prove it. For Cameron, this has become a totemic issue where he is ready to do battle with those who say the Conservative party is the party of low taxation or it is nothing. He retorts that it is the party which responds to the public’s concerns or it is nothing. His mission is to take it to power, not run a debating society, and this means ditching unpopular ideological baggage. There was no fight at that dinner, but the ideological battle lines were laid down.
Next comes the Cornerstone Group of socially conservative, Eurosceptic MPs who dine monthly under the chairmanship of Edward Leigh. Rather than brief against Cameron, they have decided to publish a series of pamphlets laying out areas where they disagree. They will soon announce their first: a rival agenda for police reform. Next month a paper on education will make the case for the voucher system in schools which Cameron has rejected. And this field — education — is where the real rebellion could lie. Cameron has ruled out a return to grammar schools, saying he does not want to look back 25 years to find ideas for the future. This has caused much uproar, especially as his alternative plans are far from clear. The name of John Redwood is — fairly or unfairly — being linked to a growing rebellion on school reform, and there are dark murmurings about an Old Etonian failing to understand the importance which Middle England places on selective state education.
But all this is carrying on beneath the radar of the media. At present, the internal opposition to Cameron is deferential rather than regicidal: the aim is not to thwart him but to change his mind. His aides send out signals to the disgruntled: there is an 18-month policy under way. This is the time for changing the public’s perception of the Tory party and for rising in the polls; judge us only when the policies are decided in summer next year. The polls are not rising, however. YouGov, whose damnably accurate polling has taken the fun out of election night, had Labour and Conservatives at level pegging in December. It now gives Labour a two-point lead and, ominously, gives Brown a six-point lead over Cameron. Ashcroft’s private polling for the party is a little better, putting the parties neck and neck, but also shows no discernible progress.
The news from the front is so far grim. There is growing alarm that the party’s campaigning machine has grown inferior to the Liberal Democrats’ — as was witnessed during the disastrous Dunfermline by-election a week ago. Officials parachuted in a candidate who could have been designed by a committee of Tory modernisers: a single mother and professional nutritionist. Cameron whipped up a frenzy when he came to town to help her campaign. Emollient pamphlets assured voters that the Tories now agree with the Lib Dems on Iraq. But the media, repositioning and soft focus counted for nothing in the polling booths: the Tory vote fell even further. This was all the more devastating because Dunfermline was supposed to show how the new Cameron Conservatives could wrest the anti-Labour vote from the Lib Dems, who won a dazzling victory. On this front, it was an unalloyed disaster and one which bodes ill for the local government elections for England in May, which will be Cameron’s first major electoral test.
Already the party is preparing for a bad result in May, and intends to blame it on local factors. Cameron himself is preparing to fight the right wing when they eventually come for him, and is getting his retaliation in early. In an intelligent and well-argued speech to the Demos think-tank last month he attacked ‘one-dimensional’ MPs who call for more grammar schools, more police and fewer taxes but were out of touch with voters who know that ‘life isn’t as simple as that’. His advisers consider such a battle inevitable, and would like to stage it early in the election cycle.
But it would be far easier to win if Cameron had evidence to show that he was winning votes and rebuilding from the centre. Blair would love nothing more than to return to the Commons after the May elections and tell Cameron, ‘You were the future, once’ — then sit back and let the Conservative mutineers carry on their work. Cameron will return from his paternity leave to find his honeymoon emphatically over.