The last of 2015’s season of political festivals sees the Conservative Party descend on Manchester next week. The boys and girls in blue have much to celebrate and will not be shy about it. For the first time in over twenty years Britain has just elected, against the odds and in the face of disheartening polls, a Tory majority Government. And Labour have picked a Leader who – fairly or not – most Conservatives believe to be an unelectable gift to the Right. As pundits predict a decade of Tory rule and the opposition appears to be turning in on itself, expect plenty of ‘hooray’ from the Henrys in Manchester.
Presiding over all of this will be a man who feels victory has vindicated him and is not afraid to show it. David Cameron was written-off by almost everyone in the run up to May. He looked incapable of securing a majority, was being circled by potential successors (May, Johnson, even Liam Fox fancied a second tilt at the top job) was being ridiculed for an election campaign that looked too negative and too narrow and had conceded to the public that this would be his last election as Tory Leader. The critics were wrong and David Cameron has achieved what no Conservative Leader since Major has managed. He is Prime Minister, his party is alone in Government, his rivals are confounded and his friends run the country. A man never especially troubled by self-doubt, Cameron will be more than comfortable basking in this remarkable success.
But the carapace of unassailable strength is every bit as much a simplification and a façade as was the received wisdom about Cameron’s imminent collapse. For a start, it would be wrong for the Prime Minister to believe he can do no wrong in his struggle against Labour and Jeremy Corbyn. The new Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition is an unconventional politician but he has successfully mobilised large numbers of highly-engaged and highly-motivated new supporters. What’s more, his election may have profound implications for Cameron’s management of his own party. With a strong, centrist Labour Party breathing down their necks Cameron and Osborne were able to co-opt all but their most extreme internal opponents with the threat that unless the Conservatives at least looked compassionate and caring they would yet again be forced from power. As Jeremy Corbyn embarks upon his long march away from the centre ground those excuses start to sound less like political pragmatism and more like a confession that, in fact, the two men at the top of the Tories really don’t share much ideologically with the Thatcherite true-believers. We have already seen the Government forced to change tack on policy when it comes to the funding and premise of the coming European referendum – by co-ordinated rebellions and public pressure from their own backbenchers. As Labour MPs begin to use their new-found freedom to disagree with their Leader (provided it is done in a courteous and comradely way, of course) so envy may well begin to creep in for the Government’s lobby fodder. Power versus principle is not simply a dilemma that plagues parties, it is also a struggle for politicians as individuals. Loyalty may win an MP a frontbench post and a chance to implement their ideas but conviction can win plaudits and appeals to the vanity of the sort of people who believe their views truly matter. Discipline will prove difficult for the Government in coming months.
The fact that the first rebellion of the new Government – an event that garnered little attention as Labour’s leadership race dominated coverage – was on Europe is instructive. As the referendum looms, so tempers will begin to fray. Cameron and his chosen successor, George Osborne, will campaign to stay part of the EU. They will do so, in part, on the back of much hue and cry about their successful renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s membership – a renegotiation that Osborne is mulling leading personally, the better to claim credit for what he hopes is the forgone conclusion of a victory for ‘in’. But the renegotiation is not proceeding well. In fact, it is barely proceeding at all. Between the Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis and the everyday domestic political crises of both the German and the French Governments Cameron has found that European leaders have remarkably little time or energy to listen to his pleas for treaty fiddling. The Prime Minister has earned the ire of allies and opponents alike in Brussels by pressing what they see as his parochial concerns and refusing to fully participate in solving the more existential threats that the Union faces. Cameron is hindered, too, by his and his party’s lack of networks in other countries – he has no real friends in foreign political parties or, indeed, in the Brussels establishment. He, and by extension Britain, cuts a lonely figure. Internationally speaking, too, the unhealed wound that is Syria continues to irritate. Russian and American bombers criss-crossing in Syrian airspace are a recipe for disaster – added to the threat of ISIS, the horrors of Assad and the Iraqi civil war it is potentially calamitous. Cameron may yet suffer the fate of many a political leader – to be undone not by his domestic policies but by a mess overseas that comes to haunt him at home.
￼Finally, but equally importantly, there is the question of succession. Winning the election may have bought Cameron breathing space but his unforced decision to rule out even a third election, let alone a third term, means his would- be heirs still plot. Nicky Morgan tells the Spectator this week that she may run, George Osborne openly tours the world as the presumptive next PM and Tory staffers chat freely about where their next loyalties will lie. James Forsyth, the Spectator’s Political Editor, claims that Cameron has already named a date for his departure in private and despite their friendship it is surely almost inevitable that the tension between a man securing his legacy and a man hoping to replace him will cause, well, tension? Cameron would have done better to remember Pompey’s advice to Sulla that, as is only natural, “more people worship the rising than the setting sun”. The power is drifting from the Prime Minister to others, even at this his most glorious moment.
So the Conservative Party will celebrate. They will mock and deride their opposition and, in particular, the new Leader of the Labour Party. And they will be justified, as a group, in feeling that their time has come at last. But the irony is that – at this long-awaited victory bash – the man who made it all happen is beginning, already, to slip away. In his place, it seems likely, will be his friend and closest adviser. George Osborne is, for now, the rising sun.