East meets Westminster: When it comes to Cameron vs the Tories there can only be one winner.
18:04 14 February 2013
Reasons to be cheerful? There are many for the Prime Minister if you look beyond gay marriage, writes Richard Porritt
Yes, Labour have a 10 point lead in the polls (their biggest for a decade), yes a tricky budget is on the horizon (Labour have also overtaken the Tories on economic polling) and yes the majority of backbenchers defied the PM on the gay marriage vote.
But the corridors of power are, supposedly, calm and quietly confident.
Around the PM backbenchers are screaming “Do something, anything” on the economy for fear of losing their seats come 2015 but Mr Cameron and his chancellor will not budge. There are no plans for anything other than slight tweaks to Plan A.
A breezy Downing Street insider told East meets Westminster this week there was no panic in Number 10: “No-one is dashing around screaming ‘help’ just yet - in fact there is a clam about the place. There is a belief that things are heading in the right direction and that the pain and hard work will pay off come the next general election.
“Of course the economy remains a massive concern but the further we go down the line with austerity the more we are convinced it is the right thing to do.
“The deficit has been cut by a quarter, there are a million new jobs since the last election and borrowing costs have fallen - yes it is difficult medicine to swallow but in the end Britain will be stronger. And we think people are increasingly understanding this route.”
The polls disagree. A survey for the Guardian earlier this week showed the public had actually swung to back Labour on Britain’s economic future for the first time since the Coalition took power. But the Tories are so well versed they spew out positive lines on the economy like a mantra. The strategists hope that the public will swallow those lines before 2015 as well - and the best way to do that is some good news, sadly for George Osborne much of that has been agonisingly out of his hands.
What about the gay vote? Is the PM not furious with MPs who did not back his modernising ways? Will East Anglian MPs Therese Coffey, David Ruffley, Douglas Carswell, Priti Patel and Peter Aldous be dragged into a back office for a dressing down over their refusal to back the bill? “No - this was a free vote and the PM knows the immense pressure some constituents put on their MPs,” the source said. “Everyone was delighted that so many Conservative MPs did back the proposal and there are no hard feelings. Of course it helps that it was passed even if was due to help from the opposition.”
It appears the PM is in excellent form - ready to forgive and forget. But why? “We were obviously very pleased with the Prime Minister’s success in Europe. People scoffed when he went out there to demand a cut in the budget and yet he got one - the first one in the history of the EU.”
And exactly how did he do it? “There was a strong case for cuts and in the end other leaders saw this.”
Mr Cameron is a canny politician - he polls consistently higher than his party with the public and Labour openly admit he is the biggest thorn in their side. And he went to Europe with a threat in his back pocket: “Hey Ms Merkel - I do hope the EU does not further annoy the British public at this stage ... that could be the difference between a Britain in Europe and one out of it.” It is, of course, impossible for East meets Westminster to know exactly the words Mr Cameron used to convince Europe to see his point of view. But in the main Mr Cameron’s fellow leaders will not want to see the back of Britain however snooty a neighbour she has been.
So this would explain the good mood amid the gloom in Downing Street. And when the dust settles on gay marriage the party will more than likely meet somewhere in the middle again.
But, united or divided, it will not really concern Mr Cameron because come 2015 the vast majority of the public will be voting for him above and beyond the Tories as a whole. So if the party or a few disgruntled, old-school, grass-roots activists do not like his modernising, well, so what? They are not the ones who will decide where powers lies.
In many respects he occupies a position similar to that which former PM Tony Blair made his own from almost the day he became Labour leader - let the party look after itself and go for the public. For Mr Blair this was far safer than Mr Cameron as it is easier to get in to heaven than overthrow a sitting Labour leader. But the Tories do things differently and only a remarkably small number of MPs need to call for a vote of no confidence to spark a leadership battle.
But Mr Cameron need not fear that either. The real reason behind any disharmony with backbenchers is that they fear losing their seats in the next election. But if they slap a nice picture of a smiling PM on their election leaflets - maybe punching the air in front a European flag? - they can safely assume the traditional vote will toe the line whether they voted for or against same sex marriage.
Mr Cameron managed something spectacular in Europe and there are even hopes of repeating that in the Eastleigh by-election in two weeks time. The Tories are committed to “throwing everything at it” and Liberal Democrat voters may well punish the party for their former MP Chris Huhne’s lies. Labour will poll well whoever stands - no-one, it appears fancies it though, with the party having to send out emails to party members asking them to submit their CVs - but this remains a two horse race.
So there are reasons to be cheerful for Mr Cameron. But what would make him really happy is a well received budget after the catastrophe of the last one. Over to you George.