Magazine article The Spectator

The Honeymoon Is over for Cameron and the Whispering Campaign against Him Has Begun

Magazine article The Spectator

The Honeymoon Is over for Cameron and the Whispering Campaign against Him Has Begun

Article excerpt

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. …

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