If Monday night's Tory rebellion on the proposal for voting reform is anything to go by, David Cameron's honeymoon with his party is not over yet. Rumours of disaffected right-wingers causing mayhem have so far proved wide of the mark. In the end, less than a dozen Tory MPs voted against the second reading. Of course, it was probably always going to be the case anyway that such disaffection as may exist among Tory "hard-liners" would not materialise until after detailed consideration of the Bill gets under way next month.
When the report stage begins in earnest – considering questions such as the date on which the referendum is to be held and whether there should be a 40 per cent threshold of voters supporting a "Yes" vote – the Tory whips may have a harder task. But of the 10 Tories who voted against the second reading, most were "usual suspects" – including Bill Cash, Christopher Chope, Philip Davies and Richard Shepherd.
All these are beyond the reach of the whips' office in any normal circumstance. Only one "new boy", the Bury North MP, David Nuttall, risked the blandishments of the Tory whips' office to become the first of the 2010 intake to vote against his party. But his 147 new Tory colleagues are still anxious to please, and most will be unwilling to blot their copybook this early in their careers. This should see the Coalition safely through the early stages of incipient challenges to the legislative programme.
So does the relative ease with which the Government secured the vote on Monday suggest that Tory backbenchers are likely to be less disruptive to the parts of the Coalition agreement they find uncongenial than many of us have so far imagined? Of course it is still early days and the opportunities for mayhem from the Tory right, during the remaining four-and-a-half years are – in theory – considerable. But who leads the "Tory right" these days with any credibility?
The name of David Davis comes instantly to mind. His share price has plummeted, however, following the press reports of his outburst about the "Brokeback coalition" at the Boot and Flogger pub in Southwark, shortly before the summer recess. (Mr Davis says he was mis-heard). Since then little has been heard from him until he spoke in Monday's debate on voting reform. Many of his former supporters have been giving him something of a wide berth in recent weeks following this decision, in the pub, to go into unofficial opposition to the Coalition.
Something odd has happened to the former Tory leadership contender over the past two years. Last year I was interviewed, on Mr Davis's regional Yorkshire BBC TV news programme, on the occasion of the anniversary of his bizarre 2008 by-election. I said that he was an outstanding shadow home secretary and should have remained in his post but I was rebuked by an astonishing text message from him. "If ever I need help, remind me not to ask you. Goodbye." Such is how a 40-year friendship in politics and journalism can end when apparently thwarted ambition, ego and vanity turn to bitterness.
I believed initially, however, that Mr Cameron ought to have found room inside the Cabinet for Mr Davis in order that he could "piss" out from inside the tent. But Mr Davis's reported pub talk has proved Mr Cameron was right to exclude his former rival. One thing, however, is for certain. A right-wing rebellion, under a Davis leadership, to topple the Cameron coalition is unlikely to be any more effective than Mr Davis's campaign to win the Tory leadership five years ago.
So who else is running for the titular head of the Tory right? John Redwood continues to plough a single-minded furrow, making the case for a smaller state and public expenditure cuts. His subliminal text is the desire that the Tory part of the coalition should never lose sight of a tax-cutting agenda – underlined during his campaign to mitigate increases in capital gains tax in George Osborne's June Budget. But although Mr Redwood chairs the Thatcherite No Turning Back Group he is also a loner, not especially given to plotting.
His unnecessary intervention, along with that of Lord Tebbit – the pantomime villain of the Tory Party – into the recent William Hague affair did neither any favours in advancing their concerns about the ability of the Tory part of the Coalition to achieve its policy goals in Europe. Mr Hague, meanwhile, looks to have weathered the storm in his teacup.
Insofar as Europe has the capacity to energise the traditional Tory right, the veteran backbencher Bill Cash remains the head of the campaign to repatriate powers back to Westminster. Events at European summits have a habit of causing British prime ministers unexpected trouble but, thus far, Mr Cameron has successfully side-stepped any new landmines that his fellow European leaders in Paris and Berlin may have been planning. Sarkozy and Merkel have their own domestic travails with every prospect that both could be gone during the Cameron premiership.
None of this means that Tory ministers should underestimate Europe's ability to cause internal party strife. Only yesterday the European Budget Commissioner proposed a further erosion of Margaret Thatcher's 1984 British rebate. Luckily George Osborne, his political antennae as sharp as ever, made it clear that other EU governments would be "wasting their time" even by raising the issue. On this occasion Mr Redwood beat Mr Cash to the airwaves but the Chancellor was ahead of both in his forthright dismissal of this latest provocation from Brussels.
The three groups of the parliamentary right now coalesce – often as a single dining group. Edward Leigh's "Cornerstone Group", John Redwood's NTB and the "92", led by Christopher Chope, claim collective majority support among all Tory backbenchers. And the official parliamentary 1922 Committee is led by Graham Brady after a bruising battle against Richard Ottaway, the Cameroon candidate.
Mr Cameron's failure to allow ministers to vote ensured Mr Brady's electoral success. But the moment all dining groups include nearly every eligible backbencher they lose their discipline and effectiveness. Too many members are aspirant ministers waiting for the telephone call from Downing Street. Secrets cannot be kept and no plot survives without the whips knowing about it in advance.
It will take a senior sacked minister – or resignation – before a focal point for dissent emerges. Only when such a personality emerges out of the shadows of the Cabinet room, with scores to settle, does a government really have need to worry about serious rebellion. Michael Heseltine, in 1986, and the late Robin Cook, in 2003, were classic symbols of such dissent. Both became figureheads for anti-government causes within their respective governing parties.
Mr Cameron probably has many months to go before he faces the wrath of one of his ex-Cabinet ministers. Just as every political party has to be led, so too does every rebellion. But the Tory right is currently leaderless. The leader of the Tory rebellion that will cause this government to fear for its survival is currently sitting somewhere around the Cabinet table.Reuse content