Saturday, February 09, 2013

Was this the week Cameron lost his party?

Whatever else the past seven eventful days in politics will ultimately be remembered for, it’s certainly been a good, maybe even vintage week for political jokes.

“I didn’t feel in the least bit sorry for Chris Huhne - until I heard that Lembit was planning to visit him in jail,” one Lib Dem wag is supposed to have told another.

Then there was the one about the new film they are making about the Tories: Gay Weddings and Dave’s Funeral.

And one enterprising cartoonist even managed to work Richard III in, depicting a battle-scarred Mr Huhne crying: "Three points, three points, my kingdom for three points."

The fact that South Shields MP and former Foreign Secretary David Miliband was pictured asleep on the Tube with his flies undone merely added to the general hilarity.

But all joking aside, this was a week of seriously big political stories which could have equally serious repercussions for David Cameron’s coalition government.

Timing apart, Mr Huhne’s dramatic fall from grace following a 10-year cover up over a driving offence and Tuesday’s Commons vote in favour of same sex marriage are completely unrelated stories.

Yet this week saw them come together in a way that may signal real trouble for the Coalition over the forthcoming weeks.

Mr Huhne’s demise has triggered potentially the most significant by-election of the current Parliament, with the two Coalition partners set to go head to head in what is a genuine Lib Dem-Tory marginal.

And the smouldering anger among grassroots Tories over the gay marriage vote means they are certain to see it as an opportunity to vent their frustrations by giving the Lib Dems a damned good kicking.

I suspect that in an ideal world Mr Cameron would like to have been in a position to give the Lib Dems a clear run in Eastleigh in order to avoid such obvious unpleasantness.

He did, after all, allow Mr Huhne to be replaced as Energy Secretary in Cabinet by another Lib Dem, Ed Davey, so why not allow him to be similarly replaced in Parliament.

The situation is vaguely analogous to what happens in a football match when a player gets injured and play has to stop while he is treated on the pitch.

On such occasions, when play resumes the ball is automatically thrown back to the side originally in possession before the injury occurred.

Yet Mr Cameron is not in a position to make such apparently sporting gestures. His own backbenchers, and his grassroots activists, simply wouldn’t stand for it.

And even if the two parties did manage to reach a non-aggression pact, there would be no guarantee it would stop UKIP snatching the seat.

Mr Huhne’s downfall was, for Mr Cameron at any rate, one of those random occurrences which come under the category what Harold Macmillan famously termed “events, dear boy, events.”

The split in the Tory Party over gay marriage, however, was entirely preventable from his point of view.

Mr Cameron has forged ahead with a piece of legislation that was neither in his party’s manifesto nor in the Coalition agreement in the belief that it would make his party look modern and inclusive.

What it has actually done is reveal it to be bitterly divided from top to bottom – and divided parties, of course, never win elections.

Neither is it ever politically wise for a Prime Minister to put himself in a position where he is dependent on the votes of the opposition parties to get a crucial measure through the Commons.

Since Mr Cameron is fond of drawing such comparisons, it is worth recalling that this nearly happened to Tony Blair in the Iraq War debate in 2003 which saw 139 Labour MPs vote against the invasion.

Although it took another four years before he was eventually forced from office, the knives were out for him from that moment on.

If 18 March 2003 was the day Mr Blair lost his party, will 5 February 2013 go down as the day David Cameron lost his?

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