Saturday 22 May 2010

Tory MPs demonstrate less confidence in Cameron than they had in John Major

"This is the most poisonous atmosphere I have known since Maastricht", one Tory MP texted to colleagues last week, according to a Sunday Telegraph report that the Tory 1922 Committee is thinking about rejecting the rule changes proposed by David Cameron last week.

Charles Moore has an important column warning about the scale of dissent about what he calls Cameron's "coup". (As James Forsyth points out, Moore is a party Establishment figure who is very supportive of Cameron).

Moore mentions that Cameron was in Paris while his MPs voted, just as Margaret Thatcher was in 1990. But, as the reference to the Maastricht atmosphere suggests, it is another secret ballot of Tory MPs which offers a very interesting comparison: the vote held when John Major's party leadership was in such crisis that he resigned and effectively challenged himself, in a "put up or shut up".

1995: Secret ballot on Tory leadership
John Major 218 (66.3%)
John Redwood 89 (27.1%)
Abstain/spoil/no vote 14
Majority 129 (39.2%)
Eligible Tory MPs: 329

2010: Secret ballot on Cameron 1922 proposals
For Cameron reform 168 (55%)
Against 118 (38.6%)
No vote 19
Majority 50 (16.3%)
Eligible Tory MPs: 305

Had Major received less than 215 votes (65% of the Parliamentary Party) he had made up his mind to resign outright. He just made his own threshold, but perhaps Major may now take some further comfort in how much more opposition was stirred by David Cameron's proposed reforms, even during his political honeymoon.

This is not to claim that the two votes are not directly comparable in every respect.

This was not a leadership contest. I expect Cameron would do better if he were able to (under the old rules), challenge himself in a leadership contest as Major did.

Yet we can learn something from the comparison. This secret ballot was Cameron's first act of leadership with his new MPs. since getting into government. Cameron asked his MPs to back his proposal as a matter of trust and confidence in their leader and newly appointed Prime Minister.

Defeat would have been a humiliation, while losing a majority of the backbenchers in these circumstances shows very significant dissent at his approach to party management.

What we can say is that Tory MPs have less confidence in David Cameron's treatment of his own Parliamentary Party than they had in John Major's crisis ridden party leadership in 1995.

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