So, as expected, the Tories received an absolute spanking when the nation went to the polls on Thursday for local council elections. Alarmingly for David Cameron, who, not too long ago, was being hailed as natural Prime Ministerial material, the Conservatives haemorrhaged some 450 local council seats, whilst Ed ‘Unelectable’ Miliband’s Labour Party mopped up 823 of them - not only in the industrial north, but in the Midlands and the affluent South to boot.
For the leadership of the Conservative Party, this is the culmination of a bruising few months. George Osborne’s budget, in all its granny-bashing, pasty-penalising misery, was but the start of the mess. If those minor qualms were jabs to the body of the Prime Minister and his Chancellor, then news that Britain had slipped into a double-dip recession and the emergence of the sordid tale of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s relationship with the Murdoch clan are a two-punch combination to the head. In the wake of the local election results, some wonder whether the present leadership is close to being knocked out altogether.
The silver lining to the dark grey cloud looming ominously over Cameron’s head is Boris Johnson’s victory in the London Mayoral race. Except, really, it’s not a silver lining – since Boris is now being regarded by some of the more deranged factions of the party as the legitimate challenger to the Cameroonian hegemony and the favourite for the leadership should the opportunity arise after the 2015 election.
With the Queen’s Speech set to lay out the Government’s legislative priorities for the coming year due in days, the party stands at a critical juncture. It can stay the course, put its faith in its modernising leader and fight the next election on the shaky premise that it has at least attempted to put the nation’s finances in order and, with any luck, finally worked out where economic growth might come from. The other option – the one that seems more likely, based on current evidence – is for the party to lurch to the right, appease the UKIP-voting hardliners of the right and hope that the electorate is in the mood to embrace a real nasty party after the cuts bite at the end of this parliament.
If Cameron knows what is best for his party in the long run, he will cling to the coalition and stick to his modernising principles. What the dinosaurs on the right seem to have forgotten is that when you lose voters in their droves to the left –as they undoubtedly did on Thursday – the answer is not to retreat to a right-wing comfort zone but to boldly re-establish a claim to the centre ground. The outstanding achievement of the Coalition to date is to have by and large succeeded in persuading the public that eradicating the deficit is a goal worth pursuing. Their hard work is at risk of being lost very quickly indeed if Ed Miliband – currently regarded as lying well to the left of the centre ground - is able to appear the pragmatic, non-ideological candidate in the face of stuttering growth and high unemployment.
The consequences of a lack of action on the part of Cameron and his allies will be dire, warn the right. I’ll believe that when I see it. Talk is of defections to UKIP; and if that is so then let the MPs go. They will find in Nigel Farage’s party an electoral dead-end of poor organisation, lack of funds and public suspicion. The Tories in question by and large represent an obnoxious boil on the backside of the Parliamentary Party anyway. Nobody with an eye on the next election would object to its lancing.
More worryingly, there are suggestions that a coup from the right may not be so far off. But in reality, the present threat is made up of the pathetic whinges of the humiliated Liam Fox and the – how to put it? – ‘frustrated’ Nadine Dorries. Add to the mix one or two of the spikier members of the 2010 crop and hawkish old backbenchers like John Redwood and you have not a coherent threat, but a rag-tag fringe of extremists. These are the types trouble-stirring journalists go to for soundbites. They represent nothing like a potential challenge to the leadership.
The only backbench MP with the stature, experience and support within the party is former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis – the man who missed out to Cameron for the leadership in 2005. It is believed that when the Government releases its legislative programme for the next 12 months, he will release his own. He is close to becoming the standard-bearer of the Tory right in all but name. The Prime Minister would do well to bring him to the Home Office in his next reshuffle, thus displacing the ailing Theresa May, whose ‘carry on Qatada’ experience has been quite enough to significantly diminish her once fearsome reputation.
The Tories know that they cannot win on a right-wing ticket without a seriously weak opposition. Humiliating defeats in 1997, 2001 and 2005 are testament to that. The Labour Party is on the up. The Government may have endured a series of blunders of late, but Boris is omnishambles embodied. It might be good enough to win him the seat at City Hall, but being ‘that bloke who was on Have I Got News For You’ won’t make him Prime Minister.
If Boris and Nadine Dorries are all these modern-day ‘bastards’ have to offer, Cameron, Osborne et al. can sleep soundly. They have little to worry about.