Tories have reasons to be fearful in Manchester amid looming EU referendum and leadership manoeuvres

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The Independent Online

It is not too ugly a caricature to say that the Conservatives like a good party, and as they gather for their conference, they have plenty enough excuse to drain Manchester’s stocks of champagne dry. 

For this was a party conference that seemed destined to be a wake. Against seemingly impossible odds, against the predictions of virtually every “expert” and pollster – and, very possibly, against his own private expectations – David Cameron managed to deliver to his party the first majority Conservative administration since 1997, and the first outright win for almost a quarter of a century. 

A year ago, Mr Cameron could, at best, look forward to leading the largest party in the Commons, relying once again on the Liberal Democrats or Ulster Unionists to limp into Downing Street. Now he is free to plan for a full-blooded Conservative programme for a full term, including further assaults on the trade unions, scrapping of the Human Rights Act, cuts to social security and, most delectable of all to many on his back benches, the referendum on the European Union. 

Muted celebration

What’s more, Mr Cameron’s enemies have been scattered as well as confounded, in a way that couldn’t have been dreamt of a few months ago. 

The Lib Dems are reduced to a rump, albeit one with a commendably lively spirit; the electoral appeal of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is, shall we say, untested. Meanwhile, Ukip – and its leader Nigel Farage – appears a much reduced force after its disappointments in the general election. The SNP may well be dominating Scotland, but, on narrow party grounds, that has been a small loss to the Conservatives, who have long since surrendered their relevance there.

And yet the celebrations should be muted – and not just because the sight of braying Tory activists is such an unwholesome one to an electorate still being lectured to about austerity. For the challenges facing Mr Cameron are every bit as daunting as they were while he was in coalition, and his party’s hold on the affections of the British electorate is still somewhat uncertain. The Tory share of the vote, at about 37 per cent, was, after all, poor by most historical standards. 

Trouble ahead

Of the many “events” that could serve to wreck Mr Cameron’s administration is the European issue. The in/out referendum is entirely a political device of his own making, and the one that promises to do the most damage both to him and his party, and also the national interest. 

In the first place, few expect him to return from his “renegotiations” in Europe with very much in the way of concessions, and certainly nothing substantial enough to appease the “children of Thatcher” in his own party who have such deeply embedded Eurosceptic instincts. His party will, then, split badly on the issue, and the nature of a referendum campaign is such that it will not be easy to control the agenda, as we witnessed during the Scottish debate on staying in the UK. 

Public opinion can be swayed easily by a few more “migrant crisis” episodes, and much of the press will be against Mr Cameron, while Labour may well end up split and equivocal on the issue itself. 

The net effect could be a narrow vote to leave, in which case Mr Cameron will be forced to return to Brussels for more concessions in the hope he can persuade the country to shift to its point of view. 

There is certainly no guarantee of that. And if Britain – for which read England – votes to leave Europe, then the position of Scotland within the UK will become untenable. 

Thus, Mr Cameron may prove to be the last prime minister of what we now know as the United Kingdom, and the man who lost Britain’s place in Europe.

Economically competitive?

The EU problem is quite beside the economic challenges that are still to be overcome – not least productivity gaps with our competitors and stagnant living standards – and the social divisions that his social policies are exacerbating. 

If reducing taxation for the rich, cutting benefits and bashing trade unions were all that is required to build a strong, competitive economy, then Britain today would be powerful indeed. For all the talk about Northern Powerhouses and infrastructure investment, the record and plans of the Government are not markedly better to those of its Labour predecessor. 

It would be a very pleasant surprise if Britain were better paid, better housed, better educated and better cared for by the NHS in 2020 than it is in 2015.

Enter Mr Osborne

Then again, Mr Cameron tells us that he won’t be around to fight the 2020 election; that task will be left to one of the three undeclared runners for the leadership – Boris Johnson, George Osborne and Theresa May – or, indeed, someone who might be 2020’s Jeremy Corbyn.

These wannabes will be on manoeuvres around the fringe meetings, bars and receptions next week, hoping their inheritance will be as golden as it appears now. Of the three, it is the Chancellor who obviously has had the best year: he can take credit for an economy that is recovering, and perhaps more surely than critics have allowed.

And it was Mr Osborne who did so much to win the election, with nakedly political budgeteering and some clever tactics that restored much of the Tory base in the South and South-west. Ms May has the great benefit of grassroots popularity. For Mr Johnson, his fortunes are inversely correlated to those of Mr Cameron. Thus it would be to him that the party would turn if the Cameron project turns to dust, and the extreme risks the Prime Minister has been taking result in the demise of the United Kingdom itself.

Tory celebrations this week, then, would be in poor taste. They should leave the champagne on ice.