Bigger even than the humiliations of Prime Minister John Major, who so suffered at their hands he started to question their parentage, David Cameron’s authority weakened last night as the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party demonstrated its strength in the House of Commons.
At least David Cameron had the courage to impose a three-line whip and stick to it. The scale of the rebellion against the Coalition government’s European policy was surprising though because it seemed to grow rather than diminish during the day. Earlier in the day I predicted it would start to fizzle out by the early evening as the Conservative Whips encouraged those threatening to vote, against their instructions, to abstain and those threatening to abstain to come on board. In the event, there were very few abstentions and a record number of rebels.
Of course, this tells us that many Conservative MPs don’t like Europe – and they feel greater dislike for it than loyalty to their leadership. But it tells us something more profound about the state of British politics at the moment.
For the last twelve months or so the prevailing narrative about the Coalition has been that this is a Conservative government propped up the Liberal Democrats in return for some legislative crumbs which, as with the Alternative Vote, then turn out not to be that sufficiently nourishing after all. According to this narrative, it was the Lib Dem MPs and members who were anguished over the direction of travel of the Coalition. They were feeling the pain – and the future of the Coalition rested on how much pain they could endure in office.
From last night we have to reassess this narrative. Sure, the Lib Dems do feel the pain. This is hardly surprising given that for just about all of the Labour years the Liberal Democrats positioned themselves to the Left of New Labour and now are in a government to its Right. But alongside the visible discomfort of much of the Liberal Democrats – I say much because there was always a significant faction within their ranks more inclined towards economic liberalism than social democracy, including Nick Clegg – there is now clear evidence from last night of the breadth and depth of the hurt amongst much of the Right of the Conservative Party.
The pain is so acute amongst over 80 Conservative MPs that they chose to humiliate their leader rather than vote with him. It is that serious.
Now, for those on the centre ground of politics it may seem reasonable that if the Right of the Conservatives and the Left of the Liberal Democrats find life within the Coalition excruciating then perhaps the government is getting it right after all. “If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working,” you might say. Perhaps. But the Coalition response to the Liberal Democrat pain has been to apply the ointment of a few concessions; it will be worth watching for what Right-wing balm is now applied for Conservatives.
Last night also challenges the narrative about the survival of the Coalition. It was received wisdom that if the Coalition collapses it will be the Liberal Democrats who pull the House down: possibly through an internal challenge to Nick Clegg, creating the circumstances where an election is necessary and a future, more comfortable coalition with Labour becomes a reality. The realignment of the Centre-Left, which so many have wanted for so long, could become a reality.
From last night though, there is another scenario. What if the Conservative Right decide they have had their fill of life with the Liberal Democrats? And then, decide to challenge their Leader? They have, unlike Labour, form in this area. In these circumstances, the Coalition collapses but the wing of the Party which David Cameron calls ‘Liberal Conservative’ would remain intact. It seems a little far-fetched today but this could even herald a realignment on the Centre-Right. Given Winston Churchill was in both parties at different times in his political existence they could even claim some history and heritage.
The real point here is that last night wasn’t just about Europe. It was about the Coalition. It was a sign that very many Conservative MPs – particularly those on the Right and including a large number of newly elected Tory MPs – have not got used to the realities of coalition politics. That it is about compromise and agreement. That it must necessarily be less ideologically pure and certainly less purely ideological.
The Tory Right just doesn’t feel the Conservative Prime Minister, Conservative Chancellor and Conservative Foreign Secretary are in a government that is sufficiently Conservative enough. That the Tories are in government but not running the government. That might seem strange to the public but it is how these people see it.
This is dangerous stuff for David Cameron. Dangerous because if the lack of loyalty grows he will have real difficulties over future European policy and perhaps any more liberal legislation. Dangerous too, because any effort to placate his Right will cause issues within the Coalition and more importantly, with centre ground public opinion. And dangerous to him personally because these people play hard and may come for him, personally.
So, it was a vote about Europe, yes. And about much more besides. British politics is more interesting as a result.