History is replete with examples of the Conservative Party orchestrating the demise of its leader. Cameron will survive the phone-hacking scandal. But they are bound to get him for something, writes Colin Marsden.
The phone hacking scandal that has engulfed the Prime Minister will not likely lead to his resignation, he is safe for now, but the Tory party is ruthless when it comes to removing leaders that no longer look like they are winners.
Anthony Eden was done for once the crisis over the issue of Suez went so badly wrong, in the absence of a 24 hour media he struggled on for a few months before the inevitable resignation. His successors in the Conservative party have often fared no better. Suez was catastrophic for Eden politically, for it signalled the United Kingdom’s decline as a global power; 1974 was fatal for Mr Heath. Labour’s narrow win in October 1974 was the second time that year that the Conservatives had failed to win a general election; the February 1974 election centred on the “who governs Britain” question when Heath attempted to rally the country in his opposition to 70’s style Trade union power. Within just a few months of his October defeat a Challenger emerged in the form of Mrs Thatcher, a previously loyal member of the Heath government.
The parliamentary Conservative Party took the opportunity to abandon Heath in droves; Mrs Thatcher gathered more votes in the first ballot than Heath did and the momentum took her to victory in the next round. Yet fifteen years later, having lead the party to three consecutive general election victories, the European issue and the deteriorating domestic economy led large numbers of the parliamentary party to conclude that a fourth election victory was impossible with Mrs Thatcher at the helm. A formal challenge to her leadership emerged in the Autumn of 1989 and then fatally again the following year. Michael Heseltine’s challenge brought down the Prime Minister but paved the way for the election of John Major.
A surprise 1992 election victory for Mr Major was not enough, within months his leadership was in question as the poll ratings for the party grew worse. He was able to pre-empt his critics in the summer of 1995 when he resigned the leadership and provoked a contest, re-elected, his boldness secured his position for two more years. More recently, when in opposition, Iain Duncan-Smith was not the first choice of the parliamentary party but won the leadership in a ballot of party members against Ken Clarke. However, he too faced a contest when discontent with his leadership grew in Parliament, two years of winning the leadership he was brought down by the parliamentary party in 2003.
Cameron failed to deliver the long hoped for majority government that looked his the taking in those final years of the ill-fated Brown premiership, he ended up in partnership with the Liberals, a situation that is far from ideal for parts of the right of his party. His performance in the Commons this week before recess was convincing enough, his MP’s rallied behind him. But the “broad church” coalition approach will be tested to the limits if the Euro zone crisis were to drag Britain into greater economic support or to plunge Britain back into recession. Could the crisis present us with a opportunity of some kind of affiliate membership of the EU? Would a Cameron-led coalition government be capable or willing to move away from Britain’s fifty year-long ambition of ever closer union? The Liberals (and I mean that in its broad sense) and the backbench Conservative MP’s could fight it out. Cameron may yet need to attempt to bridge a gap bigger than the one faced by Mr Major in the 1990’s, only time will tell.