March 13 (Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s lieutenants moved to discipline his Conservative Party, telling lawmakers and members of his Cabinet to stop undermining him and focus on the opposition.
In the past three weeks, Cameron has seen the U.K.’s credit-rating downgraded and his party, already behind in the polls for a year, pushed into third place in a special election, stoking criticism of his leadership.
At a morning meeting of Conservative Cabinet members yesterday, Education Secretary Michael Gove attacked those in the room who were positioning themselves to succeed Cameron. He didn’t name names, according to one person present who declined to be identified. Home Secretary Theresa May gave a speech on March 9 that ranged far from her brief and set out her views of the agenda on which the party should fight the 2015 election. May’s next speech, in three days’ time, will focus on her own policy areas, a person familiar with the matter said.
At a private meeting for lawmakers in Parliament later in the day, Cameron faced his rank and file. According to two of those present, his newly appointed election strategist, Lynton Crosby, told them they must decide whether they were commentators or participants in the political fight. They were urged to think about the impression created by their comments on the Twitter Inc. social network.
Another rift within the Conservatives was exposed by BBC and Daily Telegraph newspaper reports that Cameron has been forced to drop a plan to set a minimum retail price for alcohol after criticism from other ministers.
Sarah Wollaston, a Tory lawmaker who used to be a family doctor, told BBC Radio 4 she was “devastated” by the reports, because “whenever alcohol is too cheap people die.” Wollaston said on her Twitter feed yesterday that “I cannot ‘participate’ without the freedom to ‘comment,’ even if that is sometimes inconvenient to the executive.”
David Davis, a former Tory leadership challenger, told the BBC that Cameron’s alcohol pricing plan was a “blunderbuss of a policy” that would “hit poor people” hardest.
“There is a problem with deeply discounted alcohol in supermarkets and other stores. I’m determined we will deal with this,” Cameron told lawmakers in the House of Commons today. “We’ve got to deal with the problem of having 20-pence (30-cent) or 25-pence cans of lager available in supermarkets. It’s got to change.”
Cameron addressed yesterday’s meeting of lawmakers first, offering a reprise of his party conference speech from October, in which he said Britain was now in a global race. He then handed over to Crosby, who was hired in November.
Crosby, an Australian who helped John Howard win power before coming to Britain to work on the Conservatives’ losing 2005 general election campaign, was behind London Mayor Boris Johnson’s successful campaigns in 2008 and 2012. He told lawmakers gathered in the Attlee Suite, in Parliament’s Portcullis House, that his strategy for the 2015 general election would involve simple messages attacking the opposition Labour Party.
According to one lawmaker, Crosby said the Conservatives should highlight tensions between Labour leader Ed Miliband and the party’s treasury spokesman Ed Balls.
Miliband turned the spotlight on the Tories’ own tensions during Cameron’s question-and-answer session in the Commons today.
“A week out from the budget, they’ve got an economic policy that’s failing, a prime minister that makes it up as he goes along, a government that is falling apart and all the time it’s the country that is paying the price,” the Labour leader said.
At the same March 9 event where May spoke, Michael Ashcroft, a former Tory treasurer who now conducts political polls, suggested the party was on course for defeat, and that its strategy of trying to gain seats in 2015 was far too optimistic. A fan of military history, he offered a World War II analogy, saying it was “like planning the final assault on Berlin while evacuating the beaches at Dunkirk.”
Addressing Conservative lawmakers, Crosby described a moment in 2007 when he had been sitting in a hotel watching Boris Johnson on TV, and turned to his wife and told her the man would never be mayor. It showed how it was possible to be wrong, he said.
Crosby said he’d read all the Twitter comments that Conservatives had made after the party ran third in the March 1 Eastleigh election, and that twice as many had been negative as positive. He told them they shouldn’t comment on the party leadership. He urged them to stop using jargon about the economy, and try to use words such as “cost of living,” which people understood.
In the final part of the hour-long meeting, Cameron took questions in batches of three, called out by George Young, the chief whip, who is in charge of party discipline.
One Tory lawmaker present, Julian Lewis, asked about the possibility of an electoral pact with the U.K. Independence Party, which finished ahead of the Conservatives in the Eastleigh vote won by the Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners.
Cameron said the sentiments of people who backed the party should be respected, without being pandered to. Another urged Cameron to attack Church of England bishops who had criticized welfare cuts, a suggestion Cameron rebuffed.
Lawmakers representing seats the Conservatives stand to lose at the next election echoed the calls for unity, sentiments greeted with applause in the room.
The party will on March 16 unveil a 10-point promotion highlighting its achievements, to remind Tories what their messages are. Included on the list will be starting on the path of deficit reduction and cutting immigration.
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