David Cameron was in a tricky enough spot last week, forced to pretend it was, if not desirable, then at least acceptable that more than 100 obstreperous backbenchers voted their “regret” at his Government’s legislative programme. Between the high-profile grandees (Lord Lawson, Michael Portillo) and the existing cabinet ministers (Michael Gove, Philip Hammond) all voicing their scepticism on Europe – and implicitly criticising the Prime Minister’s renegotiation strategy in the process – the ghosts of John Major’s strife-riven leadership were abroad once more.
If Mr Cameron hoped that the Queen’s Speech vote would be a cathartic letting off of steam, he has once again misjudged his party’s mood. Never mind that, as with Mr Major’s “bastards”, the Prime Minister might justifiably view the Eurosceptics tearing his party to unelectable shreds as “swivel-eyed loons”. That an as-yet unidentified figure closely allied with Mr Cameron is reported describing activists in such terms only emphasises the yawning gulf between the leadership and the rank and file.
There is, of course, always tension between the politicians who must win elections and the grass-roots party for whom compromise is a betrayal. But with the Tory chairman forced to deny the “loons” quote and Mr Cameron’s own attitude now under intense scrutiny, the strains start to look more like civil war. Indeed, even as the Bow Group, a high-Tory think-tank, talks of “crisis”, the gap between the modernising Mr Cameron and the unbending traditionalism of both party activists and, crucially, swathes of MPs appears increasingly unbridgeable.
Nor will the coming week prove any easier, offering, as it does, another chance for rebels to flex their parliamentary muscles – this time over gay marriage – and for leaders-in-waiting to nail their colours to the mast. There has been no shortage of posturing already. Mr Gove’s hints on Europe are no surprise; for all his wide-eyed denials, the Education Secretary was always a contender. But it was the Defence Secretary who made last week’s most audacious bid for Tory hearts.
Not only was Mr Hammond explicitly anti-EU. Just days later he berated the Prime Minister for wasting time on gay marriage, earning a sharp put-down from a rattled No 10. And all this against the backdrop of spending review negotiations in which the Defence Secretary is very publicly setting himself up as the defender of military spending .
With the marriage Bill back in the Commons today, Mr Cameron faces yet more rebellion and dissent. Euroscepticism may have begun what Geoffrey Howe described yesterday as the Tory party’s “long, nervous breakdown”, but the row over gay marriage is emblematic of how deep the discord now runs. Barely any of Mr Cameron’s new-look, hoodie-hugging Conservatism survived the twin pressures of recession and realpolitik. Same-sex marriage remains, in his view, an electorally vital nod to modernity and the middle ground. But even that is one nod too many for his party.
So far, Mr Cameron’s attempts at conciliation have repeatedly failed. The gay marriage plans are set to be watered down. And each concession on Europe – from the referendum pledge, to the free vote on the Queen’s Speech, to the Private Member’s Bill that swiftly followed – has only upped the ante. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the majority of voters support same-sex marriage and, as the open letter from business leaders in this newspaper today makes clear, the referendum question is a distraction from the real issues for Britain in Europe. Not only is the Conservative Party splitting itself in two – it is leaving the electorate far behind.