In the normal course of events the start of a new parliament is marked by a strong sense of energy and purpose: new MPs finding their way about; freshly appointed ministers awash with ambition and ideas; a revalidated government secure of its democratic mandate and determined to drive things forward.
But the start of this parliamentary term feels like the fag end of an old administration rather than the start of a new one. MPs have already started to congregate in small, conspiratorial groups. The Whips’ Offices of all parties already yearn for the recess, still eight weeks away. The reason for this unseasonal lassitude is easy to identify. The general election and its aftermath have clarified nothing, and only made things rather worse.
The result was not good enough to strengthen the Prime Minister, nor bad enough to polish him off at once. Instead he has been left swinging in the wind. Last week Tony Blair tried, but failed, to recover the initiative with his Queen’s Speech. What it lacked in quality it made up for in quantity, and it will in due course impose a mass of fresh, burdensome legislation upon the British people.
Sunday’s referendum on the European constitution promises a set of new problems. If the French vote ‘non’ — now the likely outcome — Tony Blair will be spared the necessity of leading pro-Europeans to probable defeat in the British referendum. But there is much to be said for fighting that referendum from the Prime Minister’s point of view. It would give him a sense of purpose and above all a natural date after which he could stand down in favour of Gordon Brown. Without that the issue of when the Prime Minister goes will re-emerge, and the Chancellor will grow yet more impatient. According to Downing Street sources Gordon Brown is already causing trouble ahead of Britain’s chairmanship of the G8, demanding a much bigger role than would naturally fall to a Treasury minister.
There is one compensation for Tony Blair as he faces this embarrassing predicament: Michael Howard is facing an even more abrupt loss of his authority. The Tory leader ran a powerful and energetic election campaign; he has made a complete hash of things since. This moral collapse became manifest this week when Conservative MPs met in the Grand Committee Room to be told about changes in the Tory constitution.
Part of the problem was Howard’s own disengagement. He appeared passive, almost a disinterested spectator. Part of the problem was that the proposed changes to the leadership election rules are flawed. They look absurdly complicated, and inexcusably retain the most disastrous feature of the calamitous Hague reforms forced through seven years ago. There is still the possibility of a dual mandate. One candidate for the leadership can win in the country, another in Parliament, creating the basis for a wounding instability.
Most significant of all was the series of anguished outbursts from Conservative MPs. Complaints against the lack of consultation about changes in the party, and about the abusive treatment of Howard Flight during the general election, reflect a widespread resentment against Michael Howard’s autocratic method of leadership. As both Tony Blair and Michael Howard are discovering the hard way, it is impossible for a leader to retain his authority once he has announced that he is planning to go.
This humiliation for Howard on Tuesday night is deeply unfortunate for the modernising ‘Notting Hill’ Tories. Both Charles Moore and Lord Rees-Mogg, the two grand Tory commentators, have accused Michael Howard of trying to fix the succession. If that really is the case, then Howard’s calculations have gone hopelessly wrong. Everything that the outgoing Tory leader has done has militated against his protégé David Cameron, and helped David Davis, whom Howard is supposed to be trying to stop.
This weekend Davis, the candidate of the Right, finds himself in an exceptionally strong position. He stands more or less exactly where Michael Portillo was shortly after the resignation of William Hague four years ago. The careerists are charging in behind. Those who till now have seen nothing in Davis are suddenly discovering qualities that they never noticed before. This means that a sense of inevitability is starting to attach itself to his succession. Portillo, of course, managed to muck things up. It is less likely, though still by no means impossible, that Davis will do so.
Unlike Portillo, Davis genuinely wants the job. He has been working towards the leadership at least since 1997. In 2001 he ran such a strong campaign that Iain Duncan Smith was forced to make him chairman of the party, a post from which he was later sacked on grounds of disloyalty. Davis was not especially loyal to Howard either. On one occasion during the election campaign he was so reluctant to place himself in front of the TV cameras that the Tory campaign chief Lynton Crosby was obliged to order him into action. His defenders excused his inertia at a national level by the need to fight a vigorous local campaign against the Liberal Democrat threat in his Haltemprice and Howden constituency.
Davis has a number of weaknesses. He is exceptionally vain. That vanity can cloud his judgment, causing him, for example, to misjudge political relationships. He claims that his occasional luncheon partner Alastair Campbell is a real friend, when the truth is that Campbell is a predator with a proven record of swallowing Tory politicians. Davis spends much too much time talking to the press, is too liable to be swept up with the bottles at the end of a journalists’ party. Some opponents accuse him of idleness, but idleness is more of a virtue at Westminster (or anywhere else) than is generally appreciated.
But Davis has structured his campaign with some skill. He has been talking quietly in private to MPs, but not making too much noise. Unlikely supporters — the moderniser Julie Kirkbride, or the pro-European Ian Taylor — are making themselves known at discreet intervals. A dynamic and quite attractive policy agenda — low taxes, strong on civil liberties — has started to manifest itself. By contrast, Davis’s chief rival on the Right, Liam Fox, has gone nowhere. Meanwhile, the modernisers have yet to agree on a candidate. With George Osborne out of the game, David Cameron is their likely champion, but the horse may have bolted.
Still, there are six months to go before the leadership contest, plenty long enough for the dilatory modernisers to sort themselves out and for Davis to make a mess of things. That is why some Davis supporters are attaching significance to the Commons mutiny on Tuesday night. They are starting to argue that the vacuum at the top of the Conservative party cannot carry on all through the summer and early autumn. David Davis may soon be tempted to mount a pre-emptive strike, and may even be powerful enough to do so. But this is dangerous territory. He would be better off allowing events to take their course. Michael Howard’s Tory party may yet become so ungovernable that the leadership falls into his hands without him lifting a finger.