Leading article: A Tory right turn is no solution

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Not for the first time, the Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader could be asking whether he really needs enemies, given the vitriol he has to suffer from his supposed friends. The party's loss of hundreds of council seats in elections last week has been seized on by right-wingers to call for a sharp turn towards what they regard as full-blooded Conservatism.

Policies under threat would appear to be gay marriage (to which David Cameron is personally committed); House of Lords reform (a Liberal Democrat project listed in the Coalition Agreement); the new high-speed rail line (HS2), and co-operation within the European Union. Nadine Dorries, who has taken it upon herself to become spokeswoman for the Tory Shires, even warned yesterday that Mr Cameron could face a leadership challenge before Christmas.

The only bright spot on the Conservative horizon was Boris Johnson's victory in London, but it came with its own downsides. On the one hand, the contest was far closer than the polls had indicated; in other words, it was subject to some of the same anti-government trends as council elections elsewhere. On the other, Mr Johnson's achievement of a second term could place him in the position of leader-in-waiting should he choose to re-enter national politics. One of the more disingenuous statements made by Mr Cameron, posing beside Mr Johnson at City Hall, was that his was "a campaign the whole Conservative Party got behind". Really?

The truth is that, for all his party's electoral setbacks, Mr Cameron has a choice about whether he becomes a captive of his right wing. Nor is it even a matter of survival. He and his party could in fact be in more danger if he moves sharply right, as the Coalition would then be at risk of fracturing, leaving a weakened party to fight an early election.

The fixed-term parliament gives Mr Cameron time; the Liberal Democrat presence in the Coalition gives him an alibi for sticking to current policies. And if he wants to take a single message from last week's elections – beyond the apathy of the two-thirds who did not vote – it is not that the Government should take a sharp turn to the right, but that voters are tiring of austerity, as they might see it, for its own sake, and the Coalition should do more to foster growth.

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