David Cameron was cheered and applauded by Conservative members of Parliament as they met for the first time after his unexpected election victory last week. The question is how long they’ll keep clapping.
The U.K. prime minister arrived in jovial mood Monday to address a packed meeting of the 1922 Committee of rank-and-file Tory lawmakers. The session was originally planned before the election to ensure that he didn’t force them into another, unwanted coalition. In the event, it was a celebration, with cheers as he shouted out the names of candidates who’d overturned the odds by winning or holding their seats.
“Well, I think that went OK,” Cameron said to reporters as he walked out of the meeting in a House of Commons committee room. “Tumultuous,” was the one-word review by London Mayor Boris Johnson, now back in Parliament as member for Uxbridge. The prime minister trotted downstairs for a photograph next to Parliament with the rest of the newly elected Tories.
Cameron’s victory presents him with a paradox: Without a majority in the Commons in the last parliamentary term, he could ignore his own party. Now he has one, he can’t.
The coalition government that Cameron’s Conservatives formed with the Liberal Democrats in 2010 ended with the prime minister having a majority of 73. Cameron now has one of about 15 -- the exact number depends on which lawmakers are elected as deputy speakers. That’s thinner than the initial cushion that left his Tory predecessor, John Major, tormented by rebellions and leadership challenges between 1992 and 1997.
“A majority of less than 20 is very little breathing room,” said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University and an authority on parliamentary revolts. “There were 110 occasions in the last Parliament when seven or more members of Parliament voted against the party whip.”
As under Major, the main area for Conservative dissent against Cameron is likely to be Europe. In Cameron’s first term, pressure from his own side forced him to reverse position and promise a referendum on leaving the European Union by the end of 2017. Now, he will have to set out what aspects of Britain’s membership he wishes to renegotiate, and then try to persuade his own side to support him if he argues for staying in.
“We wish the prime minister well,” Owen Paterson, a former environment secretary and leading Tory advocate of leaving the EU, told Sky News television Sunday. “We have to give him the time and space to deliver. They have broad agreement for moving towards an arrangement where we have the benefits of the single market but not the political and judicial arrangements.”
Major came out of the 1992 election with a majority of 22. Over the next five years, it was whittled out of existence as lawmakers defected to other parties or died. His government came close to falling when 26 Tories voted against him over Europe, an act still celebrated by many within the party. He was heavily defeated in 1997 by Labour’s Tony Blair, whose three election victories kept the Tories out of power for 13 years.
David Davis, who ran against Cameron for the Conservative leadership in 2005, told the BBC he doesn’t think there will be a repeat of the Major days.
“We have done it before and we know what it feels like,” Davis said. He said the main issue in changing Britain’s relationship with the EU is “that we are able to say in future to the Europeans that ’this is too far for us.’ Not a veto but an opt-out” from certain common policies.
The disappearance of the Liberal Democrats from the government doesn’t simply reduce Cameron’s majority. It changes the way rebellions will work.
The coalition had what Cowley called “wobbly wings” -- Tories and Liberal Democrats would rebel in different directions on different issues, effectively canceling each other out. The prime minister could also blame his coalition partners for being obstructive when he didn’t do things that his party wanted, such as ending a ban on hunting foxes with hounds.
Cameron will find it easier to hold the party together before the referendum, because it’s a goal that unites the Conservatives.
But when the time for the vote comes and lawmakers must take sides for or against staying in the EU, it will be impossible to avoid a split, assuming Cameron achieves his goal of concessions from other countries that will allow him to back continued membership. The Bruges Group, which campaigns for exit, ranks 55 Tory lawmakers as “euro-skeptic” to some degree.
In a sign of how seriously Cameron takes party management, one of the first people he invited to his 10 Downing Street office on Friday was 1922 Committee Chairman Graham Brady.
“Generally, there’s a sense of goodwill across the party,” said Brady.
That’s because last week’s unexpected result delivered the first decisive Tory election win in 23 years, glossing over the memory of Cameron’s failure to deliver a majority in 2010.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told reporters after the 1922 meeting. “It’s a real celebration for David Cameron’s leadership.”
The problem for Cameron is that few things evaporate faster than political goodwill. “They’ve never loved him,” said Cowley. “They’re unlikely to start now.”