[audioplayer src="http://traffic.libsyn.com/spectator/TheViewFrom22_4_Sept_2014_v4.mp3" title="Isabel Hardman, Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth discuss the Tory civil war" startat=60]
[/audioplayer]Tory backbenchers, who have been happy for months, are once more sunk in gloom, sitting in dejected huddles in the Commons tearoom. William Hague went to gauge the morale of the troops there this week and was told by one MP that the atmosphere was akin to the tail end of 1996; a party waiting for what feels like inevitable defeat. In public and on the news Tories put on a brave face, but in private, it’s grim.
But while the Tory leadership has lost the momentum it built up over the past few months, there is one group feeling distinctly perkier. Yes, Tory Eurosceptics are furious with Carswell and fearful of a Labour government, but they are also aware that the events of the past week have strengthened their hand.
As a result of Carswell’s defection, Eurosceptics now have an exit threat. One of them explains: ‘What this means is that when ten of us go in to see the Prime Minister to ask him to give more details on his renegotiation package, he knows that if he doesn’t give us what we want, more of us will defect.’
Backbenchers were keen to squeeze out more details on the European reform plan before Carswell defected, and now they think it essential. They see it as their duty to re-educate the PM. As one says: ‘The Prime Minister has to be dragged kicking and screaming each time to a more Eurosceptic position, and then when he’s there, he finds that it’s popular.’
Steve Baker, who has consistently rebelled on Europe, argues that it goes deeper than just setting out a shopping list on reform. ‘We are always going to be an uncomfortable and unhappy family unless we reject the idea of living in the European Union as a social democracy.’
Eurosceptics know well that Cameron is never going to go that far, but they think a good start would be for him to insist on reform of freedom of movement. John Baron, a rebel leader, says: ‘There is a perception problem at the moment — we are on the back foot on Europe and we need to get back on the front foot by fleshing out our vision of what Britain’s place in Europe would look like if we won the next election. That might mean spelling out some details of our renegotiating position if necessary, and certainly something on freedom of movement would be helpful.’
This new opportunity for Eurosceptics has enraged moderate ministers — in particular because they worry that many Eurosceptics may just decide to sit the by-election out and not be punished for it at all. The whips threatened Tory MPs that they must campaign three times in Newark, but there is little chance of that happening this time around.
It’s not just that Eurosceptics won’t turn up to the Clacton campaign. They also insist that No. 10 treats Ukip gently. Many of those with long experience of corralling the right wing of the Conservative party into revolts argue that any dirty tricks operations will drive Ukip voters further away, widening the divide that has opened up on the right of politics. One Eurosceptic plotter warns that there will be serious implications for David Cameron’s leadership if there’s a sense of the Tory party ‘going after’ Carswell in this campaign.
If the Conservatives succeed in laying off the dogs in Clacton, then Ukip may take the heat off candidates in marginal seats where Labour is the second party, so the theory goes. Other MPs would like to see the Conservatives formally approach Carswell as the new Ukip MP for the constituency and form a pact with him. But some argue that this is not going to work with David Cameron as party leader. ‘A pact between Cameron and Farage is impossible because they hate each other,’ says one. ‘It could be a pact between Carswell and, well, whoever.’
Whoever that ‘whoever’ may be is the subject of wild conjecture among MPs. Boris Johnson’s name floats up in some excitable conversations, but it is highly unlikely that there will be a threat to David Cameron’s position as leader before 2015. It is clear, though, that the PM’s authority has already been seriously damaged, just when he thought he had his party back on side.