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Monday, May 20, 2013 

Meltdown man.

The great thing about Tory meltdowns is that they come from out of nowhere.  Look where we were just before the local elections: Cameron's handling of Maggie's funeral was mostly praised by the backbenches, even if it wasn't formally a state funeral, and Labour's year long lead of around 10 points in most polls was beginning to slipThe economy had avoided a triple-dip, it might not have even truly double-dipped, and the economic news (so long as you ignored plenty of other conflicting stats) looked encouraging.

Nor did it seem at first as though UKIP's surge at the local elections had truly spooked the party. Indeed, losing 335 seats from their high point was a pretty good result in the circumstances, just as 300, regardless of what the leadership claimed, was poor for Labour.  Where everything began to come unstuck was with Nigel Lawson's call for us to leave the EU immediately, swiftly followed by the Queen's speech, which despite some pressure failed to so much as mention the possibility of a bill for the promised referendum on the EU in 2017.  That you can't legislate to hold the next parliament to account was deemed irrelevant; as John Baron, along with Peter Bone the ringleaders behind the rebellion said, the public simply wouldn't believe a promise having had them broken previously.

A smart questioning of Michael Gove later, who said if there was a referendum now he would vote to leave the EU, a position Philip Hammond quickly echoed and Dave, who just so happened to be travelling to the US to help hammer out a deal on, err, EU trade, spent the next three days with his advisers trying to head off a rebellion he claimed to be "profoundly relaxed" about.  Those with memories similar to my own might recall that the last time Cameron said he was "relaxed" about a development was when the Graun revealed the News of the Screws' settlement with Gordon Taylor, exploding the idea that there was just one "rogue reporter" at the paper who had indulged in phone hacking.  He might well have been relaxed then when he should instead have been asking Andy Coulson what exactly had gone on; this time the reality was he was anything but.

Rather than face down the rebels, Cameron repeated what he originally did back in January: he gave in.  Ever since he proclaimed that his aim was to repatriate powers from the EU and then have a vote on this changed relationship, so long as the Tories won in 2015, the "swivel-eyed loons" have kept pushing.  The vagueness of his original promise, based on sound reasoning that you don't give away your bargaining position when you haven't even started negotiations, simply wasn't enough to satisfy those who seem to think that if you sort out Europe then you effectively sort out everything.  Nor had the Bloomberg speech had the other intended effects of dampening down support for UKIP, which instead predictably increased, or trapping Labour, with Ed Miliband sticking with the position that there are more pressing things to deal with, which there self-evidently are.

Who could possibly have guessed that the same thing would happen again?  Rather than being bought off with this new pledge, 116 Tories voted for the amendment expressing regret about the lack of a bill in the Queen's speech anyway.  Nor does the proposed bill, due to be tabled by James Wharton after he won the ballot of those wishing to publish a private member's bill stand a chance of becoming law when both the Lib Dems and Labour will oppose it.  All Cameron's appeasement has done is make clear just how weak he is and how monomaniacal a third of his party is.

It may well be the case that it's the serial rebels who do represent the majority of the Tory grassroots, those who claimed yesterday that Cameron's support for gay marriage will somehow cost the party the next election, when the polls suggest overwhelmingly that even the EU ranks higher in most people's calculations of how they'll vote.  As reflected before, the really strange thing is that apart from gay marriage and the EU, Cameron has achieved much of what his base wanted and was set out in their manifesto.  They've hijacked Labour's academy programme and introduced free schools; they've put a cap on the amount a family can claim in benefits and introduced universal credit, while continuing to cause misery through the constant reassessing of those on ESA; they've pursued self-defeating austerity despite even the IMF urging George Osborne to ease up; they've reduced immigration, albeit mainly through making the country less attractive for foreign students; and they've reduced corporation and income tax, would like to fillet employment law further if they got the chance, and have cut the public sector workforce massively.  All this, and yet it seems as though the fact that Cameron and his pals are elitist and socially liberal undermines everything else, with the fall in living standards playing a lesser role.

Whether or not Andrew Feldman did describe Tory activists pre-occupied with gay marriage as "swivel-eyed loons", and it's strange that two separate newspapers reported that an unnamed party figure did if he didn't, it's the kind of comment where the damage is done instantly.  Nothing seems more calculated to increase defections to UKIP, the new home of those on the right who want to stop the world, where ideological purity can come ahead of things like electability.  It reminds somewhat of the Tea Party in America, where the hard right holds sway over those who favour compromise and change. The result has been lost seats and a two-term Democratic president.

The widening split in the Tories threatens the party in a similar way.  It's apparent that David Cameron cannot win an election on the platform espoused by the rebels, having failed to win in 2010 on a centre-right manifesto against the walking target that was Gordon Brown.  While arguably the political census has shifted somewhat to the right since 2010, a section of support for the party has gone to UKIP and isn't going to come back regardless, such is the disenchantment.  At the same time the banging on about Europe just sends most of the country to sleep, and if anything support for staying in seems to increase the more it's talked about, while business gets ever more restless.

Just how much Cameron can do to change things now isn't clear.  One step might be a reshuffle, calling back some of those who have one foot in the rebel camp (John Redwood, maybe?) whose presence might placate the criticism that Cameron just surrounds himself with cronies and pals.  He could turn his fire on his coalition partner and stymie a Lib Dem policy, but, err, are there any?  He could hope that an improvement in the economy might trickle down enough to swing some who are currently flirting with Labour back, but that still seems a way off.  Looking at 2015 from here, and failing a UKIP pact, something extremely unlikely, it just doesn't seem possible that the Tories can even equal their showing last time.  For all the destruction the coalition has unleashed, Cameron faces the ignominy of having helmed a single term government.  Not even John Major fell to that low.

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