Superficially the Conservative Party is in the strongest position it has been in since 1992. It has a majority in the Commons, a mandate from the nation, and is perceived as having succeeded in restoring the country’s finances and led it out of the deepest recession in years. Its’ opponents are in disarray – made politically irrelevant in the case of UKIP, in the case of Labour driven into an ideological civil war.
Yet the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith from the Cabinet yesterday indicates that the Prime Minister’s greatest threat lies from within his own party. Duncan Smith ostensibly left over a disagreement with the Treasury over cuts to disability benefits, but his sudden departure shows that the Tories are in a perilous position, one which may well lead to their implosion if Cameron cannot unite his party.
The fundamental issue is that Tory MPs dislike the Prime Minister and his allies. Whether it was Nadine Dorries’ caustic dismissal of Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne as ‘arrogant posh boys’, or Charles Walker’s statement that he had been ‘played for a fool’ by Michael Gove and William Hague (both Cameron loyalists and personal friends of the PM), Cameron’s premiership has been littered with intimations of discontent from the backbenches. This came to a head with the defection of Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell to UKIP in summer 2014, something which struck at the heart of Cameron’s claims that the Conservative Party was a ‘big tent’ which had room for Eurosceptics. Both Reckless and Carswell were evidently unhappy with the leadership style of Cameron and Osborne.
Duncan Smith was, like those two, a prominent Eurosceptic, and that was certainly a causal factor in his departure. Earlier this month he had criticised the Remain campaign (and implicitly the PM) for ‘the acrimonious manner’ in which he had handled the referendum campaign, and suggested it approached bullying. He, and others such as his protégé Priti Patel, were never precisely sure how secure their position in the Cabinet was. As is often the case on issues where politicians ‘agree to disagree’, neither faction was quite sure how free they were to speak their mind. It is not inconceivable that his departure was to enable him to take the leading role in the Out campaign that he clearly wanted.
But Europe is symptomatic of a wider problem; Cameron is losing control of his party. He has been persistently aloof and uninterested in compromise with his own backbenches, and has increasingly turned the Tories into his own fiefdom. One notable way by which this has been effected was the ‘A-List’ policy of placing centrally approved candidates in safe seats; such candidates would not only be ideologically vetted for commitment to Cameron-ism, but would also be personally loyal to Tory high leadership. Despite the obvious anger of local associations, Cameron pressed ahead with this policy – building in a majority of loyalists, but at the cost of angering established Tories.
In addition he has ridden roughshod over his backbenchers and even members of the Cabinet who did not conform to his ideological standards. One example is the shabby treatment meted out to the exceptionally talented MP Graham Brady, who Cameron allowed to resign after Brady dared speak out against Cameron’s rejection of opening new grammar schools. Notable too were the numerous times that Cameron seemed far more amenable to Lib Dem politicians than to his own MPs; his decision to go into coalition rather than maintain a minority government was not appreciated by those MPs shunted out of prospective ministerial jobs to make way for Lib Dems. He then attempted to force through a reform of the Upper House, only to be stopped by a backbench revolt that he dealt with by (allegedly) physically threatening rebellious MP Jesse Norman.
Iain Duncan Smith has long been a victim of his, something which his resignation has only now fully revealed. For years he was made a hate figure by the left, caricatured as a humourless sociopath hell-bent on snatching benefits from the hands of the unemployed. Duncan Smith was the fall guy in the government’s reforms of welfare, the man who was sent to justify the government in front of the TV cameras. But even away from the press, it is clear that he was cruelly used indeed, forced to repeatedly make swingeing rounds of cuts to enable the governments’ spending limits to be kept.
The nadir in this has been the most recent budget, a document which reads from start to finish as an enormous political calculation. The Chancellor is clearly aware of the fact that certain groups are more likely to support the Tories than others. 18-30 year olds are hugely unsympathetic to the Conservatives, whereas pensioners are more likely to migrate between parties based on financial considerations. As such, this budget is a culmination of many years of economic bribery directed towards the elderly; the infamous ‘triple lock’ on pensions and the 2014 liberalisation of the same industry are two notable examples.
Pensioners are not the only recipient of Cameron and Osborne’s munificence: the two have continued to press on with their plans for a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, principally through road improvements and ‘HS3.’ In 2015 the Tories succeeded in shaking up Labour control of the North, for instance through unseating Ed Balls in Morley and Outwood. In this light, it is difficult to see HS3 as being anything other than a political ploy to gain votes in this key area.
The victim of all of this has been the welfare system. This is not to suggest, of course, that the system is not in need of reform – there are many areas in which increased efficiency is needed, and the fundamental goal of a leaner and better benefits system is laudable. But for No. 10 to spend extravagantly for political reasons in this budget, and then to leave the tab at the feet of the Work and Pensions department, is fundamentally unjust. Duncan Smith is not resigning merely because he disagrees with the piece of paper he was made to sign; he is resigning because he is tired of being used as a tool by Osborne and Cameron.
What does this entail for the Conservatives going ahead? In the short term Cameron’s position is consolidated, with a potential thorn in his side leaving the cabinet to be replaced with an avowed Cameron loyalist in the form of the genial Stephen Crabb. If we presume that Priti Patel will follow her boss out (a move which seems inevitable) then the Cabinet is increasingly emptying of Eurosceptics – if Cameron wins the referendum, more will go. In addition, Duncan Smith’s departure offers an opportunity for the government to make a respectable u-turn on disability benefit reforms, casting it as an internal rethink rather than something forced by Labour.
In the long term, however, this is a serious issue for the Tories. Whilst Duncan Smith has gone from cabinet, the downside is that he is now free to speak his mind from the back benches – and there are many Tories who will listen, on both wings of the party. Duncan Smith’s Euroscepticism means that many MPs thus inclined will see him as a martyr; similarly, the more liberal wing of the party will sympathise with the circumstances over which he resigned.
Moreover, this is a public vote of no confidence in David Cameron and George Osborne, an overt sign that things are amiss within the Conservative Party. It will force the government into either pressing ahead with the reforms – which the press will spin as a return of the ‘nasty party’ – or a retreat which will inevitably appear weak. Tory backbenchers will view this as a license to become even more assertive, seeing Duncan Smith’s resignation as portending the collapse of the Cameron ministry after the referendum.
Everything presently hangs upon the outcome of this referendum. It goes without saying that Cameron will resign if he fails to win, and Osborne too – he has staked far too much on it. But merely winning is not enough. Even a close victory would fail to convince his party – and voters – that he holds the confidence of the nation. In the event that he fails to win the referendum confidently, the resignation of IDS will have been the first nail in the coffin of Cameronism. A flurry of further resignations will either result in Cameron’s resignation or a humiliating vote of no confidence. If, on the other hand, Cameron clearly wins the referendum, a major spring-cleaning of the cabinet will be in order. Either way, this is far more than a resignation.