James Forsyth James Forsyth

The Conservative crack-up

Months after a historic election victory, party unity is in pieces. What can David Cameron do about it?

No one does political violence quite like the Tories. The fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 unleashed a cycle of reprisals that lasted until David Cameron became leader in 2005. During that time, Tories specialised in factionalism: wets vs dries, Europhiles vs Eurosceptics, modernisers vs traditionalists. Cameron’s great achievement was to unite the party in pursuit of power. Now that unity is coming undone.

You can blame Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour for the latest Conservative breakdown. The Tory wars of the mid-1990s were fuelled by a sense that defeat was inevitable: since the Conservatives weren’t going to beat Tony Blair, they felt they might as well fight each other. This time round, the Tory wars are being stoked by a sense that the party can’t lose; that they will win the next election whatever happens. They look at Corbyn and conclude that they can knock lumps out of each other without fear.

Once, Iain Duncan Smith might have thought better of a public resignation that took aim at the very foundation of this government: the argument that it is reducing the deficit in a fair manner. As a former leader he knows better than most how disunity drags the party down. But with Labour not much more than a sideshow, he felt free to resign in order to make a political point about welfare reform. He has long complained — privately, and not so privately — that the protection of pensions had come at too great a cost to working-age benefits. He had implemented £33 billion of George Osborne’s cuts, he told Cameron, and couldn’t do any more.

His unease was exacerbated by the sheer number of spending statements recently — four in the past year alone. With the fiscal forecasts worsening, this latest Budget was always going to strain the delicate relationship between Osborne’s Treasury and IDS’s Department for Work and Pensions.

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