It’s fairly obvious to most observers that Dave and George are on shaky ground. The past two months have been tough ones for our embattled prime minister. He has been undermined by three Conservative cabinet ministers in the aftermath of the disastrous Eastleigh by election, attacked by backbench MPs for promoting patronage, being weak on Europe and being out of touch with the electorate. Finally comes the catastrophic results of both the by elections and then the local county elections. Cameron’s in trouble and so is the Conservative Party.
But the question is whether this latest rebellion over the Queen’s speech will prove to be the beginning of the end for Mr Cameron. Or will it simply prove to be another bump in the very bumpy road of his premiership? The proposed amendment’s wording is fairly platitudinous and would have little practical impact on government policy if passed. It simply states that the house “respectfully regrets that an EU referendum bill was not included in the gracious speech”. The amendment is hardly a revelation, anyone who has so much as walked past a newspaper stand in the last two years could have guessed that many Tory MPs would have liked cast iron commitments on a referendum in the Queen’s speech. What’s more the amendment would in no way be binding on government policy or UK foreign policy so many will wonder why so much is being made of this latest spat between party leadership and the backbenches.
Firstly it shows that backbenchers have little faith in Mr. Cameron’s promise of a referendum in 2017. Or at least accept that the public have little trust in his promises. This in itself is a fairly damaging development for the prime minister, how could he possibly hope to go into 2015 fighting on the back of a promise for a referendum when even his own MPs don’t fully trust his assurances?
Secondly it shows a fairly discouraging lack of belief in the government backbenches that Mr Cameron will be Prime Minister following the 2015 election. This is why even those who do believe his promise that in the event of a Conservative victory in 2015 there will be a referendum want him to legislate to force the next government to hold a referendum regardless of who is in power. Because they believe as things stand it is unlikely that the Conservatives will win the election under his leadership.
Finally, constitutionally, an amendment to a queen’s speech even being tabled by MPs is a monumental event. The last time it happened was in 1946 and up until the passing the fixed term parliaments bill the passing of a queen’s speech amendment constituted a vote of no confidence and would force the prime minister’s resignation. Whilst legally this is no longer the case, in principle if the amendment was passed it would constitute a very clear signal from both the party and parliament as a whole that the prime minister’s position is becoming untenable. The mere tabling of the amendment by his own party is damaging, but there is a good chance that the passing of it would prove fatal.
David Davis and the other 29 MPs who signed the amendment must have been aware of the stakes. They must have known that this shot across the bow of Mr Cameron’s premiership would undermine his credibility and risk his position. Indeed it’s hard to believe that this was anything other than their intention. They would have been acutely aware of the connotations of tabling an amendment to the queen’s speech and the damage it would inflict on Mr. Cameron. Indeed something is afoot in the parliamentary Conservative Party and if I was Dave or George I would be worried.
Many MPs are exasperated. They know that they face losing their seats in 2015, seats that represent the realization of life long ambitions; they see the advance of UKIP and believe that Mr Cameron’s perceived ‘New Tory’ approach of abandoning traditional Conservative values have cost them many of the votes they would need to keep their seats and livelihoods. Europe has become the focus of this and is a fight from which they will not back down.
However, this is not the first time that Mr Cameron has had to contend with rebellion on a large scale. In 2011 81 Tory MPs defied the Whips and voted in favour of a referendum, but there is a different feel in Westminster now. The Government doesn’t feel as confident and the Prime Minister doesn’t look as secure. Since 2011 he has suffered two abysmal election results, had to endure attacks from senior party figures and dealt with a perceived leadership bid by his home secretary. He is weaker now than he has ever been.
It is hard to see this latest incident as anything other than a component of a calculated campaign to finish him off, or at the very least force a change in government direction. Following the disastrous county elections the dissidents sprang into action. There have been attacks from David Davis, less prominent MPs like Dr Sarah Wollaston and then the bombshell from Lord Lawson advocating a total withdrawal from the EU.
Will Cameron survive this fight? Probably, he has desperately tried to pretend that this isn’t a direct attack on his leadership by hinting towards a free vote and even implying that he would have considered voting in favor of the amendment if he wasn’t out of the country. This charade coupled with the remarkably fortunate clause in the fixed-term parliaments act redefining a vote of no confidence gives him some maneuvering room.
However the Prime Minister should be warned, these rebellions create a perception of chaos and weakness. If the Parliamentary dissidents don’t topple him first the public are unlikely to back a leader still seen to be weak in 2015. The Prime Minister must be seen to rein in the rebels and get his party behind him. Because, as it stands, his MPs sense blood.