The growing speculation about a possible challenge to David Cameron's leadership of the Conservative Party is fast becoming a funeral march to certain electoral defeat in 2015 - or even earlier if they change leaders.
British electoral history shows that people are rarely prepared to vote for divided parties and with the current widespread disillusionment with politics the sight of Tory MPs panicking to try and save their own skins is likely to accentuate that. Nobody knows this better than Ed Miliband and the Labour Party who realise that they merely have to sit on the sidelines exerting no more than a gentle pressure on the government from time-to-time to benefit. With less than two years to go until the next General Election, Labour is in no hurry to produce detailed policies for the simple reason no-one is asking for them while all the pressure is on its opponents.
For along time it seemed that George Osborne was the lightning conductor for Tory dissent but David Cameron made it clear that ditching his Chancellor was not an option, presumably feeling that the Prime Ministerial shield would be sufficient to deflect criticism. That shield has proved woefully inadequate as Cameron now finds himself cruelly exposed to his growing ranks of vocal critics.
But what are their options?
They can continue to organise enough MPs - 46 - to demand a vote of confidence in Cameron's leadership. If they get over that hurdle, previous form suggests that it will take two attempts to dislodge a sitting Prime Minister - just look back at all the 'stalking horse' nonsense of the attempts to get rid of Margaret Thatcher. This would take us dangerously close to the election for the wounds of a bloody leadership battle to stand any chance of healing, although many on the Tory right will point to John Major's success in 1992, having only been leader and Prime Minister for six months.
Little commented on at the moment, however, is the unique circumstances of a Coalition government and the possible reaction of the Liberal Democrats to a change in Tory leader. With many in the Lib Dems equally concerned as their Tory counterparts by the rise of UKIP and their consequent slump to fourth in the opinion polls, a change of Tory leader could be an easy excuse to exit the Coalition early. This would be particulalry easy to justify if the new leader came from the right of the Conservative Party. It would, of course, be a huge gamble for the Lib Dems: they could just as easily be blamed for breaking their promise to stay the course until 2015 as win plaudits for walking away from a Tory-led government that wanted to hurtle to the right, especially on Europe.
A break-up of the Coalition could preciptate an early General Election, albeit that this government's legisiation on fixed-term Parliaments makes this less likely but not impossible.
It is almost a worn-out cliché that politics is all a matter of timing and with less than two years at most to go before the next General Election that looks to be as true as ever. One big risk factor the Tories have to address as they ponder whether to pounce on Cameron is the threat from UKIP, especially the possibility that it might emerge from next year's European Parliament elections as the winners in terms of votes. Do they try to head off this threat – which might create even more momentum for UKIP – by electing an anti-EU leader this autumn or do they leave Cameron in place, either hoping the UKIP bubble bursts or that the results are so bad for the Tories that it becomes impossible for Cameron to carry and the coup therefore becomes relatively bloodless?
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