A thorn in the side – but in the nicest possible way

Richard Porritt’s look at the issues dominating the political agenda.

REBEL: Verb, 1. To resist openly or fight against authority or oppressive conditions. 2. To refuse to conform to conventional rules of behaviour. 3. To become a thorn in the side of any sitting prime minister.

Clacton MP Douglas Carswell has been getting on David Cameron’s nerves for some time now. To Number 10 it appears that with every U-turn, with every policy that does not hold up to public scrutiny and with every new financial setback Mr Carswell is there tutting and saying: “I told you so.” Many in cabinet have labelled Mr Carswell a rebel – but it is a definition he would dispute.

Back in April Mr Cameron lost his cool with Mr Carswell when he slapped down a question at Prime Minister’s Questions – No. 10 is clearly rattled by the former University of East Anglia student.

And last week he was among a significant show of force by Conservative MPs calling for Mr Cameron to set in to legislature a referendum on Europe. If opinion polls are anything to go by it would appear the Prime Minister should be paying closer attention to his nemesis.

But it has not always been such a strained relationship. Mr Carswell’s best-selling book The Plan published in 2008 is packed with ideas which were lifted – often wholesale – by the Conservative top brass as they began building a blueprint to topple the Labour government. Open primaries, elected police commissioners and the Great Repeal Act are all examples of ideas that are now accepted Coalition policies – and they all came from Mr Carswell.

So there is no doubt about his political prowess – Mr Carswell is not your average disgruntled backbencher. In fact he is not disgruntled at all: “I am doing my job – representing my constituents”, he told East meets Westminster this week.

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And on Europe he insists it is not about attacking the Prime Minister for the sake of it, his words and actions are for the greater good of the party and, indeed, the country: “If we do not act now over a European referendum then the Labour Party will.

“David Cameron must not let this drag on and let them seize the initiative away from us. We must not wait until an election is called and try and surprise people with it in a manifesto – the time is now. If he leaves it any longer it will be damaging.”

And he wants more than Mr Cameron’s hint at giving the public the chance to have their say. He is demanding any vote poses the ‘in or out’ question and claims the Prime Minister has left himself a lot of “wiggle room”. And Mr Cameron has form for going back on referendum promises after telling the public back in 2009 that there would be a vote if he was elected. Now his apparent fudge of the issue has got some backbenchers’ hackles up – notably former Defence Secretary Liam Fox.

And Ed Miliband loves it. The Labour leader said the Prime Minister had suffered a “hokey-cokey weekend” after apparently ruling a vote out, before ruling it back in again – presumably he will “shake it all about” next weekend. All the while Labour are doing exactly what Mr Carswell has warned against: Waiting to see what the Government does and being willing to take just one step further to impress a largely Eurosceptic population.

A tide is turning on Mr Cameron but all is not lost – yet.

Back in 1992 then premier John Major had his own rebels – and they make Mr Carswell appear like a flag-waving Cameroon happy to jump in front of flying bullets for his great leader.

Backbencher Bill Cash was the Douglas Carswell of his day in many respects. He too fought running battles with No. 10 over Europe but it would seem unlikely that Mr Carswell would go as far as to form a rebel HQ and even secretly arrange for an MP on his death bed to be smuggled in to the House of Commons to vote against a Government bill.

In his memoirs John Major admitted publicly how rattled he was by the uprising against the Maastricht Treaty. Of course it did not help that his predecessor Margaret Thatcher – who still loomed large over the party – was also opposed to the proposals. She empowered the Maastricht rebels when, during a House of Lords speech, she said she “could never have signed that Treaty” and that it was “a recipe for national suicide”.

Ultimately Mr Major’s battle over Europe did not quite topple him although many would suggest he never recovered even after he called a leadership election – and won – in a bid to reassert his authority. The infighting continued up to the 1997 election and beyond – the scars of a party ripped apart were instrumental in their collapse at the polls.

But in 2012, amid a makeshift Government, things are not going to get that bad for Mr Cameron. And Mr Carswell has no desire to see anyone but the Tories in power. He is a modern rebel – in fact, many fellow backbenchers do not think of him as a rebel at all.

“Douglas is more of a maverick really,” one parliamentary colleague told this column. “And he is the nicest, politest MP you could wish to meet.”

He may have good manners but it will take far more than that for him to get a place around the top table: “A job in cabinet?” he said when quizzed about his ambitions. “I am happy to represent the people who elected me.”

So maverick it is: Maverick Noun 1. A determinedly independent person; a nonconformist.

Richard Porritt is on Twitter @Porritt.

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