Leaders are rarely as powerful as they seem. We columnists and many others demand that they act in a certain way without acknowledging that it would be quite impossible for them to do so. Most of the time they function in extremely limited space, the contours of which are shaped by party, media and the state of the economy.
At Westminster I continue to bump into MPs from all three main parties who argue that Monday's revolt of Conservative MPs was a seismic event and not a trivial one. To my surprise I agree with them. Mostly in British politics what appears to be dramatic is forgotten within days, but in the case of the parliamentary revolt the significance matches the drama. After the revolt the already cramped space in which David Cameron leads as Prime Minister got smaller still. Suddenly the House of Commons became an institution of pivotal importance, one that is likely to determine the fate of his government.
We are not used to this. More important, Cameron and his court are not used to this.
Mostly in recent decades governments have won landslides or comfortable majorities. As a result, prime ministers had a little more space to govern. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair could at least give the impression of deciding on a course and going for it. The Lady was not for turning. Blair had no "reverse gear". These were partly presentational devices as both those leaders agonised in different ways over precisely how much space they did have to lead in the way they wished, but neither had cause to worry much about the House of Commons.
David Cameron has sought to be Blair-like in policy terms and to some extent stylistically. Monday's revolt was a vivid reminder that even if he would like to be Blair-like he cannot be so. The parliamentary context is unrecognisably different.
This might seem a statement of the obvious and yet I get the impression that it comes as something of a shock to Cameron and his entourage. Some of them arrived in No 10 after the election fizzing with ideas, noted that Nick Clegg and some Liberal Democrats seemed keen on their agenda, and proceeded to get going.
This is where they differ from New Labour. Even with a majority of 180 in 1997, Blair and his advisers would ask constantly what could go wrong. They asked to the point of paralysis. With a verve that was both impressive and reckless, Cameron's team pressed on. One of them notes to me that they did not consider for a moment how their agenda would play in the media, let alone contemplate whether Parliament would be a problem.
They must consider Parliament from now on. Some Tory MPs complain about Cameron's lofty approach, an aloofness that can be comical in its inadvertent rudeness. I am told of one incident where, in opposition, a member of the Shadow Cabinet was earnestly explaining to Cameron his latest thoughts. The Tory leader continued to read a newspaper, indifferent to the words of wisdom and indifferent also to the need to appear interested.
From now on he has no choice but to appear utterly animated by his MPs, even the dullest and most obsessive. Context determines the nature of leadership more than personality. The context is closer to John Major's in the mid-1990s and Harold Wilson/Jim Callaghan after the two close elections in 1974. In both cases Parliament moved centre stage dramatically. The Labour government was removed from power after losing a vote of confidence in the Commons. Major's most nerve-wracking and draining moments arose as he awaited the outcome of knife-edge votes. Wilson, Callaghan and Major are widely criticised for being weak, but they could not be strong because the parliamentary circumstances demanded the hard grind of compromise and engagement with MPs who they often loathed.
In some ways Cameron faces a tougher task. As a leader of a coalition, he has fewer powers of patronage to offer potential dissenters and he must also make sure the Lib Dems are still on board. Harold Wilson complained to Barbara Castle that he had "waded through shit" keeping his party united over Europe. At least Wilson only had to keep one party happy.
Nor is party management limited to Europe, although that is difficult enough. In the House of Lords Tory peers are still seeking changes to the Health Bill. On Tuesday the former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Mackay of Clashfern waded into another problematic area, relating to the new statutory responsibilities of the Health Secretary.
The early dream in No 10, or parts of it, was for the Secretary of State to be distant from direct responsibility. Lord Mackay is having none of it. Putting forward an amendment he stated: "It would be better, if it were possible, to make the position of the Secretary of State absolutely plain – that he should have the ultimate responsibility to Parliament, whatever statutory structures were put in place, for the provision of the service".
In some ways it is healthy for Parliament to be more prominent, but it makes change more difficult to implement and leadership much more of a Machiavellian chore. How will Cameron respond to being like Wilson or Major rather than Blair? That is the question arising from a tumultuous revolt.Reuse content