Last week when it first transpired that David Cameron had given up on Lords reform, Conservative backbenchers were thrilled. Conor Burns, who resigned as a PPS to vote against the legislation at second reading, told Coffee House that this was a ‘symbol of [Cameron’s] determination to try to foster improved and friendly relations within the Conservative party’. Rebel leader Jesse Norman was similarly cheery. It suggested that the Prime Minister had a chance to rebuild fractured relations with his party.
Not any more. Backbenchers are now livid that Nick Clegg has announced that he will be instructing his party to vote against the boundary review. I’ve just spoken again to Burns, who said:
‘As someone who resigned from the government in order to vote against something that the government was proposing, and who watched a colleague being sacked by the Prime Minister for doing the same thing, it now sticks in the throat to listen to the Deputy Prime Minister saying that he will instruct his colleagues to vote against a government policy and that there will be no disciplinary action taken against government ministers who vote against the government in which they serve.’
The thing that bugs Burns, quite simply, is that Clegg thinks it is fine for ministers to rebel and then carry on with their day jobs. Cameron said this morning that ‘this disagreement isn’t going to get in the way of getting on with what really matters’. He knows that to sack Lib Dem ministers would be to end the coalition. He can’t afford to do that, and so the Lib Dems can afford to push him into the corner that he’s found himself in. But if he thought that this corner was better than the corner he’d be in with his own party if he tried to force the Lords reforms, it looks like he’s wrong. Burns added, darkly:
‘Some of us now fear that people are more interested in leading the coalition than leading the party they were elected to lead.’
Another backbench rebel told me recently that they thought Cameron was ‘toast’ because of the way he has led – or not led, in their opinion – his party through these reforms, although they expected the real toasting to take place after a defeat in 2015 rather than in this parliament. Meanwhile, Nadine Dorries, never knowingly soft on the Tory leadership, says failing to discipline Sarah Teather for performing a disappearing act when the Commons voted on the benefit cap started a pattern of rebellion. She says:
‘It’s very simple really. It’s about Cameron and Clegg keeping their bums on their seats as Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister for as long as possible. I would put money on the fact that David Cameron will not lead us into the next election.’
Dorries is not expressing a mainstream belief when she says Cameron will go early, and surveys of Tory members do not support this theory yet either. But one thing is clear: backbenchers are going to kick up an almighty fuss about the boundaries vote in the autumn. And Cameron can be even less confident about counting on their loyalty on legislation they don’t like from now on.