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It seems David Cameron didn’t make such a good job of revitalising Conservatism after all.
Three Cabinet ministers have gone to Tory Blogsite ConservativeHome to vent their frustration at the comedy Prime Minister’s refusal to listen to their concerns about Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Bill. “One was insistent the Bill must be dropped,” the blog post by Tim Montgomerie states. “Another said Andrew Lansley must be replaced. Another likened the NHS reforms to the poll tax,” which was disastrous for the Tories in 1990.
So you see, they’re all in it together (as the saying goes) when the going is easy, but once the headwinds start coming in, the rifts start to show.
And now we have three Cabinet ministers splitting from their PM and his Health Secretary. Does anybody remember a time in the mid-1990s when John Major had a similar problem with three members of his Cabinet? He said at the time: “You have three… members of the Cabinet who actually resign… I could bring in other people. But where do you think most of this poison is coming from? From the dispossessed and the never-possessed. You can think of ex-ministers who are going around causing all sorts of trouble. We don’t want another three more of the b*st*rds out there.”
That seems to be exactly what Comedy David has to deal with, though: “Three more of the b*st*rds”. From his point of view, at least.
His loyalty to his Health Secretary (and former boss at the Conservative Research Department) might be praiseworthy in another context. Here, it seems likely to split his party – because, when members of the Cabinet start to rebel, the writing’s on the wall.
Look at Major’s premiership. With him, the problem was Europe. Right-wingers in his Cabinet caused disruption that became an ideological rift, at a time when New Labour was on the rise. Ministers were caught having extramarital affairs and accepting cash for questions. His party became associated with greed and arrogance and the public deserted it, leaving it in the backwaters of British politics for more than a decade.
One only has to glance at the ‘Comments’ column of Mr Montgomerie’s blog to see that the rifts are still there; Cameron only ever succeeded in papering over them.
The Health Bill is hugely divisive: “Abandoning the bill is not an option – it’s philosophically right, and killing it would give Miliband a huge boost,” claims one (deluded, in my opinion) correspondent.
But another says: “It has suffered death by a thousand amendments. It has become an incoherent mess.”
Another simply asks: “Is the bill the new longest suicide note in history?”
Many have taken the opportunity to voice their opinions about other issues; once a split has been identified, they’ll pour all their grievances through the gap.
Europe remains a hot topic: “The Conservatives have already lost the next general election because of the EU and the false promise that Cameron made to get votes for his party. It is quite plain now that he did not intend for there to be a referendum on the EU and has reneged on the voters – they won’t vote for him again,” according to one correspondent.
The popularity (or not) of individual members of the government is still creating splits: “The fact that [Oliver] Letwin was so heavily involved does, and has, worried me,” writes another. “The guy is very bright, but not in a way people on the street would appreciate, or like. He was also heavily involved in ‘bomb proofing’ the Poll Tax legislation was he not?”
The crucial problem for the Conservatives now is the harm this has done to their electability – a problem that was due to worsen with the publication of a report by the right-of-centre thinktank Reform, saying the government’s entire ‘reform’ of public services is being undermined by the Department of Health’s management of NHS changes.
According to The Guardian, “The Scorecard report on 10 government departments with responsibility for different areas of public sector reform also singles out the prime minister for criticism for personally intervening with detailed promises on issues such as waiting times and nurses visiting patients’ beds every hour. The criticisms by Reform will be particularly damaging because they accuse the health bill of causing exactly the opposite of what it is intended to achieve – holding back reform of the NHS and damaging services for patients.”
Tories like power, and they’ll turn on anything that might get in the way. “The plan needs to be to win a working majority in 2015, and prevent Prime Minister Miliband,” as yet another ConservativeHome correspondent put it.
But Mr Cameron likes power too – even the semblance of it that he’s got now. So, even if he can’t get his legislation passed with any degree of confidence in it, he’ll cling on to what he’s got for all he’s worth.
I reckon we’re looking at another three years of ‘lame duck’ leadership before the electorate can take him out and (metaphorically) shoot him.
As the saying goes.