Panic, once let loose, is hard to corral. And there seems to be plenty of panic on the Tory benches at Westminster. The Eastleigh by-election result, the stagnant economy and the rising sense that the Prime Minister has somehow lost his way all contribute to this. Each fresh setback – or perceived setback – now has an impact disproportionate to the actual size or importance of the problem. These things are no longer measured on a linear scale.
Read, for instance, Ben Brogan’s analysis in today’s Telegraph and you will perceive an under-current of deep panic presently afflicting the Tory tribe in London. Similarly, when Paul Goodman is writing – correctly, I think – that a post-2015 leadership campaign has already, if quietly, begun you can sense the fear in Tory ranks. Indiscipline, already rampant on the backbenches, is spreading to the cabinet. Nor is this merely the standard pre-budget jockeying for position. The days of ministers taking one for Team Coalition because, dash it, We’re All In This Together are over.
One conclusion is obvious: this is not a party that thinks it will win the next election nor even, perhaps, remain the largest party once the votes have been counted. And if the Tories have such little confidence in their own prospects why should the electorate take a more optimistic view?
Some, including my former boss Iain Martin, suspect that coalition government itself is rotting the Tory party. He may have a point. I’d argue that it is not necessarily coalition that is damaging the Tories in power but coalition government practised badly. Coalition government requires more, not less, discipline than single-party government. It demands the parties hammer out a programme for government and then stick to it. This has not happened. Not really. Instead the government is reduced to horse-trading between its three constituent parts: the Tory leadership, the Tory right and the Liberal Democrats. No wonder there is a lack of grip and, too often, the sense policy is being made up on the hoof with no real sense of strategic direction.
This has unfortunate consequences. Time and time agan we hear Tory complaints that this or that cannot be done because the Lib Dems won’t permit it. But, even if true, this both reinforces the point that the Tories were not properly prepared – psychologically as much as politically – for coalition and, worse, risks making them seem desperately feeble. Whining about how the Lib Dems are so beastly is an excellent way to project weakness.
Moreover, it hardly need be said that George Osborne’s two most calamitous decisions – increasing VAT and cutting income tax for the very wealthiest Britons – owed nothing to any malign Lib Dem influence. Osborne is quite capable of stuffing things up on his own without any outside interference. Similarly it was not the Lib Dems who – idiotically – divided the country into “shirkers” and “strivers”.
Perhaps this panic is unwarranted or at least exaggerated. The economy may be in slightly better shape than many people think. But it is a testament to the Tory troubles that so many right-of-centre politicians and pundits think Osborne magically “find growth”. He can do no such thing. He is not the master of the economic universe any more than were his predecessors. He can make modest adjustments but, frankly, if there was an easy or obvious path to economic virulence or some pill the government could distribute to guarantee better performance we might think it odd the chancellor preferred to keep it to himself until now.
Still, the public has a nose for division and weakness and the Tory party, indulging itself with yet another passage of internal bickering, is, at present, making Ed Miliband’s life laughably easy. It is not that Miliband has the answers himself (good god, no) but nor is he having to work very hard at present. I still believe Labour’s opinion poll lead is soft but the Tories, for any number of curious reasons, seem hellbent upon testing and disproving that proposition. Odd, really.