Tory backbenchers first smelled, then tasted blood over the Maria Miller episode. Like that scene in Anchorman 2 (yes, I’ve seen it) where Ron Burgundy bottle-feeds a baby shark, David Cameron and Number 10 failed to realise the danger before them. Now they have a taste for it, and the Conservative Party leadership is in their sights.
Expect in the immediacy, the tightly knit Cameron cabal to close ranks. No more insolence, he’ll demand. No more of Michael Gove or Sayeeda Warsi mouthing off about Eton. These are treacherous times for the Prime Minister. Add to the mix the inevitable slaughter of the European Parliamentary Elections and what becomes increasingly clear is that his post-defeat reshuffle is going to be one of two things. Knowing the PM’s obstinance, I’m guessing it will be the latter of the two:
1. A clear-out of the modernisers, giving succour to the backbenchers and Tory grassroots. Ken Clarke’s gotta go. And Maude. Even Letwin. Certainly Warsi.
2. Hunker down. Tinker round the edges, but perform one big Cabinet move to distract the media (Theresa May?) and project ‘power’. Then just pray he can get things right in 2015.
But who’s the real fall guy in both scenarios?
Grant Shapps. That’s who. When the going gets tough for the C5+1 (Cameron’s closest allies, plus George Osborne), you can bet the fingers will all be pointed towards Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) and its egotist-in-chief.
The rumblings against Shapps are so palpable that Sky News’s Dermot Murgnahan last weekend asked Shapps how he felt in being the fall guy for the Budget’s Bingo posters. The Treasury vs. CCHQ war was spoken about openly, but usually this kind of Westminster gossip doesn’t get aired in public. Not that quickly anyway.
And Shapps is already thrashing around trying to undermine his opponents, even if it means giving Liberal Democrat Vince Cable some leeway, blaming those in his own party for Royal Mail failings.
A Spectator blog last week quoted a Tory source claiming that Michael Fallon, seen as one of Shapp’s main opponents for the Chairmanship of the Tory Party, didn’t know the difference between a campaign and champagne. The knock had Shapps’s fingerprints all over it. In short, he should be toast. But Cameron really, really wants someone to blame an election loss in 2015 on. That man is Grant Shapps.
But back to Cameron himself.
A former colleague from his special adviser days is known to have remarked that the PM is simply out to feather his nest with the premiership. Five years and out is no great loss to a man of Cameron’s age, who will undoubtedly be able to leave Number 10 and coin it in the city for the rest of his life.
He has no real passion for conservatism, and his older, moderniser mates in Cabinet are at retirement age anyway. Tories, whether in Cabinet or on the backbenches, are very aware of this. Like Ron Burgundy’s shark, when we next hear from them, they’re unlikely to want to be bottle fed again.