Adil Sait on the questions that will haunt this government
Since their surprise majority in the general election, the past few months have been very eventful for David Cameron, George Osborne and the cabinet. Tax credits, Europe and the construction planning system are all traditional fault lines between front and back benches – despite how yawn inducing they may sound to us.
With all these issues on the table then, does a major rebellion lie in store for Cameron in the next five years?
Arguably the most controversial issue for the Tories is Europe and the nature of national sovereignty in Britain. Both Cameron and Osborne are in favour of the UK’s membership of the common market, but many backbenchers have historically been against the EU “meddling” in UK affairs. Margaret Thatcher was famously ousted as leader of the Conservative Party in 1990 over the negotiations with Europe, and in 2015 the issue has risen to new heights of prominence. For the first time, the Eurosceptic lobby has had enough power and influence to force the Prime Minister to hold an in-out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.
The most prominent sign of this division was the defection of two backbench MPs, Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell, to the ranks of Ukip. Although tension seems to have subsided, with Cameron and Osborne agreeing to leading a “renegotiation” on Europe, the situation is far from stable. The Eurosceptic lobby of the Conservative party is still cautious on how to proceed and believes the government may not achieve their EU reform aims. Though Ukip has lost much of its prominence since the general election, many prominent Conservatives have links with “Business for Britain” and “Leave.eu”, the main campaigns to leave Europe – this could pose problems for the government.
Another of the issues facing the government is austerity. While the idea of “Britain living within its means” that Osborne has touted time and again sounds simple, the controversy over tax credits shows the division between support for austerity and the idea of “compassionate conservatism”. While the government wants to eliminate the deficit by the end of the parliament, backbench Conservative MPs in marginal seats have a tough balance to show that they really do support “hard-working families” who are facing tough situations, while also supporting the government’s agenda. Although the welfare reform bill has been passed in the Commons, the issue will no doubt cast a deep shadow over the Tory leadership as it has to be re-debated or amended after being rejected in the House of Lords this week.
In addition, the final contradiction that the modern Conservative party faces is in its attitude towards infrastructure and development centralisation in the UK. The battle over British investment is causing great harm to the career ambitions of Osborne and Cameron, as they try to appease backbenchers from the Tory Shires of England who don’t want big projects, while also preparing Britain for the future. Proposals to create an English Votes for English Laws system – with its sinister acronym EVEL – will no doubt go ahead, but this is likely to come at a cost of greater division between England and the rest of the UK, and possibly between English cities and rural areas. This is dangerous for the government’s cohesion, as Osborne and Cameron try to create a legacy of “One Nation” conservatism that may not square with Tory MPs who oppose the system of centralised government as it stands, and want a more localised system.
So whichever way we look at this potent mix of austerity, Europe, and centralised power, Cameron and Osborne face more than a few challenges. David Cameron has promised not to run for a third term, so these challenges will strongly affect his legacy as Prime Minister. Yet George Osborne has even more to lose as Chancellor of the Exchequer and heir-apparent to Cameron’s vision of “Compassionate Conservatism”.
Will the Tories have a rebellion on their hands? They may well have at some point, but a more incisive question will be whether Cameron and Osborne can survive the heat, or whether there will be hungry Tories – most notably Boris Johnson – who will be waiting to step in and capitalise on the leadership’s misfortunes.
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