The Conservative Party: A civil war in sight?
The budget week is always a big one for those interested in politics. There have been few budgets in recent years bigger than the one announced on 16 March, though, because of the fallout that swiftly followed the Chancellor’s beaming face on the doorstep of Number 10. He proudly showed off the red briefcase containing his work of art, but whilst we became initially distracted by the new sugar tax and Jamie Oliver’s delight and the window dressing of the proposed HS3 rail link, there was a storm brewing. As the budget began to crumble, Osborne’s smile turned to a blank stare of despair.
Churchill is supposed to have said, “politics is not a game, it is an earnest business,” but in reality it is a game in this day and age, and the chessmasters in the Commons and the spin rooms across the capital rapidly started to play their political games. Who knew cutting benefits for the disabled whilst giving the wealthiest in the country a tax break could cause such a furore? That little gem was subtly slipped into the Chancellors proposals to cut welfare spending by £4 billion over this parliament in order to cut the deficit, and when the Labour party and the press got hold of it sparks began to fly. But who equally knew the former Work and Pensions Secretary and ruthless welfare slasher, Iain Duncan Smith, had such a problem with it?
Iain Duncan Smith has marked the start of the Tory Civil War by resigning from his role in the government citing the proposed cut to PIP, or disability allowance to you and me, as “deeply unfair” and “arbitrary.” This is the first real flashpoint in an inter-party war which has seen divisions intensify rapidly since the General Election in May as factions vie to pull the party in a new direction ready for the leadership contest which is billed to come soon after the EU referendum.
If this spat, which occurred just 48 hours after the budget announcement, was the first battle, the propaganda war swiftly followed on Sunday with Iain Duncan Smith immediately setting out his stall on the Andrew Marr Show. He effectively set about a brutal attack on the government and gave his break down of events. The former party leader from 2001 to 2003 called the cuts he was asked to make “indefensible” and despite David Cameron’s personal attempts to keep Duncan Smith within the government, his resignation was final. Just like all wars though, sides were to be taken and rapidly an anti-Osborne crew had rallied within the party, with key names such as Michael Fabricant taking to Twitter to lambast Osborne for disappearing when it was his budget that sparked this havoc.
Seemingly, Osbourne is actually a very divisive figure and more unpopular than we initially suspected which rather shakes up the leadership contest somewhat. He is seen as Cameron’s heir to the throne and the man with one foot already in the door, but being personally cited by MPs as the cause of such divisiveness the votes for him to become the leader just may not be there and, if they are, perhaps a division more visible than Labour’s Corbyn debacle could occur.
Clearly the real motive behind Iain Duncan Smith’s move is to distance himself from the cabinet for the forthcoming EU referendum. A proud member of the Vote Leave campaign, he has been sitting uncomfortably next to Cameron and Osbourne for too long and is looking to distance himself for a while now. Of course other Out campaigners are happily staying within the cabinet, Michael Gove for example, but Duncan Smith had pre-existing disdain for having to follow Osborne’s chopping orders for the last 6 years and can now campaign as a stark change from the norm by appealing not only to those who want out of the EU but also those who are currently anti-government.
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Perhaps intentionally he has ignited a row bigger than anything that has been seen within the Conservative party for a number of years. The rumblings of discontent have always been there from the Eurosceptics and the rebels like Peter Bone, who votes with the heart and rarely for the party, but now a perfect cocktail of an open referendum and a divisive budget have sparked chaos. If Labour can exploit this they can finally start to make headway in the polls for the first time since Corbyn came to power. However, the Tories are always too good at showing a united front at the most watched event in town, Prime Minister’s Questions, with Cameron the ringleader always coming out relatively unscathed and saving his party from itself.
I doubt this is a civil war that will bring about the end of the Tory party. The party rode the storm of UKIP insurgency and the two defections to the party in 2014 and there isn’t much appetite for a new right-wing splinter party to emerge on the other side of the chamber. The rebels get more press and the occasional concession from shouting from the inside out and Conservatives like Jacob Rees-Mogg would be insulting the party they do love (it’s the leadership they disagree with) if they left, along with risking re-election in what are now considerably safe seats for themselves.
— YouGov (@YouGov)
It has to be said, though, that damage is consistently being done to the party that entered the Parliament as a monolith of stability in 2015. The first Conservative majority since John Major in the 1990s, and yet the disability cuts will be “kicked into the long grass” according to a Number 10 source. The defeats and rebellions on pledges like the tax credit reform are nothing short of embarrassing.
What is clear though is that there are serious fractures emerging within the party. It seems perhaps the difficulties of the coalition government bound the Conservative party together and the small majority they now hold in the Commons makes the effect of a rebellious few almost fatal with every blow they deliver, spurring them on more.
There are splits within the party and the defining battle in this war will be the leadership contest when Cameron steps down. Osborne is looking less and less likely to win with his unpopularity growing and if both him and Cameron are ousted there will be a Cameron and Osborne purge of the party. Not talking Soviet lengths, them and their supporters won’t be packed off to Siberia, but the party will move in a very different direction and through reconciliation and rebuilding the party, like a war torn nation, will finally bring an end to the civil war. Or so the party establishment and their voters will hope.