Awkward squad wrests control of the agenda

Authority is bleeding away. On the big issues - tax, Europe, privatisation - a troupe of populist rebels are increasingly setting what passes for an agenda while ministers stand by in mute anger. The sound-bites of the awkward squad drown out the careful strategies of Cabinet. Now, to govern is no longer to choose: it is merely to writhe.

Last night will go down as a climactic moment in the lurid story of Tory dissent. Not only have the rebels assassinated a highly unpopular tax increase, earning the muttered thanks of many loyal Conservatives as well as the voters. They have, it seems, forced a government that had been boasting of its public-spending toughness to admit that further reductions are, after all, possible.

With ministers deeply worried about the markets, Kenneth Clarke charged back last night like a wounded rhino. His swift acceptance of defeat on the substantive issue was right. He had decided earlier in the day, after grim news from the whips had started to circulate round Whitehall, that to slog on would merely prolong the agony. The Government is too weak for such attrition. As a final throw, over the course of the evening, Mr Clarke played poker with the rebels about their real price. He bid high, but not high enough.

So, of the various unpalatable options, spending cuts may prove the least bad, though endless ingenious tax wheezes are being floated. However, ministers can all too easily imagine what Labour's Gordon Brown would make of yet another Tory tax increase - which would itself require Commons authority.

It is beginning to look as if the bland official statement in the House of Commons bulletin that there is no government majority is going to become a serious reality. Ministers had argued that their effective majority remained in double figures, but if they cannot carry finance measures like this it is starting to look a thin boast.

Spending cuts may help Mr Clarke's reputation with his right-wing critics, but they would not do much for the Chief Secretary, Jonathan Aitken, who has been telling his admirers on the right that he has been incredibly brutal already. If so, they will be wondering, how come a few stroppy backbenchers can make him come up with more?

Last night does not mark the end for this administration. There are Labour precedents for losing such votes and soldiering on. It may not even be bad news for the Tory party in the longer term: there were plenty of ministers who had been disloyally praying for a defeat. As one put it: ''The trouble with Clarke's position is that every blood-curdling alternative he threatened the party with curdled the blood rather less than what we were already committed to do.''

But the defeat has further cruelly damaged the Cabinet's weak grasp over the legislature, posed serious questions about John Major's parliamentary strategy, and marked another high-water mark in the rising tide of rebel influence over this government. This week may bring yet another vote of High Noon proportions when the European Finance Bill returns. The Government is not so much living from week to week as reeling wildly from day to day. We keep saying it cannot go on like this. But it does. Can ministers imagine anything worse than what is happening to them now? They can: a general election.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions