The modernising discourse underlining contemporary Conservative Party politics is, perhaps, manifested most materially in its leader David Cameron: that is, populist rhetoric advocating self-determination and shared growth within a strong, unionist economy. But the past decade, since Cameron defeated David Davis and Ken Clarke to become Party Leader in 2005, has proved a tricky one for the Tory executive, not in terms of macro-level political success but internal Party politics. The next four years, regardless of whether a majority can be achieved in the House of Commons at the General Election in 10 months, are set to rock the boat even more. The small-c conservative faction – relics of Thatcher’s era, mixed with socio-economic traditionalists – are sure to clash somewhat with the more liberal modernists who currently head the Party, most of whom are keen for a shot at the leadership. Just what the confrontation, let alone the wider political battles with Labour, UKIP and the continued presence of the shrinking Liberal Democrats, will do to Cameron’s personal career is of distinct interest, given the fate of some of his predecessors – notably Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, both of whom perhaps overstayed their welcome at 10 Downing Street.
A Prospective Second Term
An article in yesterday’s Financial Times was rather objective and self-assured on the matter of Mr Cameron’s future as Leader of the Conservative Party. It made several statements. The first, perhaps both logically and realistically, was that, should the Tories lose the next election, Cameron would resign as Party Leader. What would happen then to the Party is uncertain – some believe that a defeat, after an already suspect ‘win’ in 2010, would mark the end of the ‘modernisation’ experiment, backed by the most obvious of Cameron’s potential successor, Chancellor George Osborne, Home Secretary Theresa May, and London Mayor Boris Johnson. If Cameron were to remain Party Leader after the Tories lost, he would be the first former Prime Minister to become Leader of the Opposition with any real intent to fight for office again since Ted Heath, or arguably even Heath’s rival, twice-Labour PM Harold Wilson.
Should the Tories win a majority next year however, and the polls are indicating this is increasingly likely given Ed Miliband’s rocky tenure as Leader of the Opposition, a similar, but yet very different, question will be asked of Mr Cameron. The FT article strongly suggests that the Prime Minister plans to stand down in 2018, but that he has not publically declared this for fear of being portrayed as a ‘lame duck’. This, the article writes, is partly due to Cameron’s distinct awareness of the fate of his predecessors. Both Thatcher and Blair began to lose legitimacy after eight years or so in power; both were chipped at by ambitious colleagues. Whilst it is naïve to claim that Cameron will place an arbitrary time limit on his time in office, he does, perhaps, face strong internal opposition, both from those Conservatives who oppose his grand strategy, and from his, until now, most loyal supporters.
In the article’s defence, the situation does lend itself to speculation along these lines. The character of an individual who can become Prime Minister is unlikely to see reason before it is too late; Thatcher is the greatest example of this, others perhaps include William Gladstone and Herbert Asquith, both of whom were also forced from office due to opposition from within their own Liberal Party. Similarly, the character of those in the supporting ranks is unlikely to produce ministers content with secondary cabinet positions. Gordon Brown and Michael Heseltine stand out as ambitious right hand men from the Blair and Thatcher governments respectively. As mentioned, despite the apparent friendships among the current coalition cabinet, Osborne, May and Johnson all look eager for a chance to be Prime Minister. They remain a threat, despite Cameron’s ‘watering down’ of internal opposition in the recent cabinet shuffle, when former Party Leader and Foreign Secretary William Hague and long-standing Cabinet Minister Kenneth Clarke retired from front line politics. Another potential leadership candidate, Michael Gove, was effectively demoted too.
Gove is unlikely to make a Frank Underwood/Urqhart, ‘House of Cards style’ revenge ploy from his new position of Chief Whip. But the threat of the others may be real to Cameron. Perhaps the FT article is right; Cameron has proved a pragmatic leader in various political fields, including within his own cabinet. The sacking of Gove, a reported friend, is testament to that. So, then, Cameron may either, indeed, be keen leave the Prime Ministership whilst on top – which, incidentally, has not been done without duress since Stanley Baldwin stood down in 1937 – or he may be very aware of the threat of his colleagues and in deep preparation for a Thatcher-like struggle to maintain power.
This website, to a certain extent, agrees with the FT, but without the paper’s assurance. True, it might be difficult for Cameron to remain in active politics if he were to lose next year or stand down in 2018. However, there seems to be a natural progression if the Tories win the next general election. Cameron could build a strong government profile between 2015 and 2018, before standing down and running his successor’s campaign for 2020. Some suspect Osborne to be the top candidate. Others point to Johnson, who may resign his Mayoral position and stand for parliament again (which, incidentally, may leave London open to Labour influence under the potential auspices of Diane Abbott or similar). Perhaps two years as a campaign manager, and then political retirement does appeal to the current Prime Minister.
Ed Miliband will be watching closely. The attention has turned onto Cameron and the personalities surrounding him, but what will happen to Miliband if he loses next year may be an even rockier show. Perhaps brother David will be waiting in the wings; Ed Balls seems there or there abouts too. Regardless, the Tories seem to have some leadership answers for any situation post-2015 whereas Labour do not. The problem is, though, that there is a distinct lack of a Blairite candidate for the Prime Ministership. David Miliband perhaps comes close, but as far as anyone is aware, he is out of British active politics for good. Cameron and co. just don’t really seem to inspire the Conservative Party beyond their success in the field. Just how much will a shake up at the top really change anything?