The end of the affair
Usually, a Conservative Leader who loses not one but two elections would have no hope of survival. That being the case, Cameron’s potential assassins have a difficult cost-benefit analysis to conduct – yes, they may want rid of him and think someone else would do a better job. But do they really want to throw away the chance of a Government with a bloody, messy coup? And do they really want to waste their candidate on a hung Parliament and a vicious European referendum when they could just wait a few years and ride to the rescue when all the blood-letting is done? Add to that a further complication – that Boris can’t abandon the Mayoralty without triggering a by-election for another six months – and leaving Cameron in post becomes even more attractive. It’s that equation that Cameron was mulling when he confessed his lack of ambition for a third term – it sweetens the deal for faltering plotters if they know that he will leave anyway, of his own accord, before the next election. And that buys him time.
Last night saw the first combined TV event of the campaign too, with Miliband and Cameron shadow boxing with one another via the proxies of Jeremy Paxman, Kay Burley and The Great British Public. There were no gotcha moments and no breakthroughs either. But the event did highlight weaknesses in the pitches of both Leaders. Cameron has become more robotic since 2010 and much less personable as a result. This is music to the ears of Lynton Crosby - who wants his man brutally focused on the economy - but makes him brittle and uninspiring in interviews. Discipline is important, but it makes you vulnerable if it results in an inability to engage with anything other than your core message. And Miliband? He did well in the audience Q&A, and inevitably bettered the incredibly low expectations many had of him. But the lingering questions of character - or, at least, of his ability to communicate character - remain. For much of his one-on-one with Paxman he seemed to be delivering defensive soliloquies rather than engaging in conversation. It felt, at times, awkwardly like a man staring in the mirror and reciting 'you can do it, you're the best' over and over again. However, Ed landed one good blow on Paxman as he asserted that a Hung Parliament was not a foregone conclusion, and to audience applause told the Mighty Paxman that he was, “important, but not that important,” and that the British people will decide. The last week of Parliament also offered us more excitement that might have been expected.
We were treated to a final Miliband vs. Cameron clash at PMQs, with both men wanting to put in a better performance than usual - not to charm the public, few of whom watch or care, but to boost morale ahead of the weeks of door-knocking to follow. And it was Cameron who won the day, humiliating Miliband with a carefully laid (and Osborne shaped) trap on VAT that left the Labour Leader dangling and improvising for most of his questions. The roar of the Tory benches spoke of a party fired-up and ready for the fight. Had it been left there, the Labour benches might have been forgiven for returning to their constituencies feeling battered and bruised. But it didn't end there - because the Government got cocky. In a convoluted attempt to exact revenge on Speaker John Bercow, William Hague announced a sudden and unexpected last-minute vote on the procedure for re-electing the Speaker. This was supposed to be a dastardly final boost to Tory backbench morale - instead it turned into a desperate and humiliating farce. The Conservative Whips, ineptly lead by Michael Gove - had yet again - misread and misunderstood the mood of their own Parliamentarians. Yes, many of them loathe Bercow. But they hate over-mighty and too clever by half Government chicanery more. A dramatic day of debates – including one Tory MP eliciting a standing ovation from the Labour benches for a tearful speech denouncing the treachery of both Hague and Gove – the Government was defeated. Many Tory MPs return to their constituencies today wondering, yet again, whether they can trust or respect their own Leadership. Do these theatrics matter to the result in May? Politics is a dynamic system and morale of the troops matters in the fight, and in the aftermath.
The final exchanges of this Parliament were a tonic for the Labour troops, and a downer for the Tories. A Parliamentary Party as mistrustful of its Leaders and as eager to rebel as the 2010-15 Conservatives is a rare thing indeed. And if they come back to the House still feeling bruised and misused – with little to show, in terms of seats, for their trouble – Cameron may not even get the chance to try to negotiate his way back to power. It is stunts like the abortive Bercow coup that make some backbenchers hiss that they'd rather kill Cameron in opposition than allow him (and the Party) the dignity of a managed transition further down the line. All told, this week has been a modest boon for Labour and a period of frustration for the Conservatives. Neither side really landed a blow, though, and instead the wounds were mostly self-inflicted. Whatever Cameron's thinking, his open deliberation on his retirement plans was a distraction. And his robotic performance last night will not have won anyone new to his cause. Finally, the gimmickry – and, in the words of one Tory backbencher, 'dishonesty' - of the Government's attempted decapitation of Bercow has left the troops sore and irritable. In a long march, that kind of angst can cause a multitude of problems.