While the mainstream media salivates over every disagreement in the Labour party, Conservative dissent has received less scrutiny than Jeremy Corbyn’s cat. Until now. The EU deal is pulling Tory divisions back into the spotlight, and Cameron – already struggling to push his legislation through the Lords – is facing increasing rebellion from his own benches:
Cameron’s EU deal
Eurosceptic Conservative MPs wasted no time slamming David Cameron’s draft deal with the EU when it was announced, but we haven’t seen the half of it yet. Cameron has gone to extraordinary lengths to contain the rebellion to date: demanding silence from ministers, allegedly using software to catch out those privately briefing to leave the EU, instructing MPs to ignore the Tory grassroots and even bribing Boris Johnson to bring him on-side. But with two-thirds of Tory MPs – including an estimated five cabinet members – supporting a Brexit, he’s unlikely to be able to keep a lid on the split for much longer. As Robert Peston writes: “There is zero chance of cabinet unity on the Prime Minister’s EU deal holding till the summit on February 18.”
Up to 50 Tory MPs look set to rebel against Cameron’s plans to impose billions of pounds of extra cuts on local councils in England from April this year. The plans were announced just before Christmas, and local authorities are already scrambling to budget for the unexpected cuts, announcing the closures of libraries, children’s centres, bus services, mental health services and a whole host of other frontline services. The rebel MPs argue that the cuts disproportionately affect rural areas, including their own Tory constituencies. One told The Independent: “I know some MPs who have never rebelled in their lives but are prepared to over this.” The draft local government finance settlement will be put before the Commons this month.
Senior Tories – MPs and peers – are putting pressure on the government to backtrack on plans to cut Labour’s funding, with David Davis MP (former shadow Home Secretary) telling The Independent the plans were “mean-spirited” and “borderline immoral”. Andrew Tyrie, the influential Conservative chair of the Treasury Select Committee, also weighed in. The trade union bill would, as it stands, lose Labour £8m a year in funding, and a separate measure from Osborne (a cut in funding for opposition parties) would slash Labour’s funds by a further £1m. Peers have already delayed the trade union bill so they could scrutinise its impacts on Labour’s funds; now a cross-party rebellion in the Lords, including Tories, is starting to look likely.
The Google tax deal
Meanwhile, some of Cameron’s ministers have declared all out war on his Chancellor, George Osborne, over the Google tax fiasco. One senior minister (anonymously) told The Sun Osborne was “a social cripple” and “a schemer”, saying: “A five-year-old could have done a better job with this deal.” Another said: “It’s like Ed Miliband and the ‘weird’ thing – people look at [Osborne] and they don’t like him, they’re not even sure why.” Even Osborne’s close ally Business Secretary Sajid Javid has distanced himself from the deal as has the Prime Minister himself. With David Cameron planning to step down before the next election, we can expect to hear more anonymous briefings against would-be contenders in the coming months and years.
Cuts to cancer support
Adam Bienkov reports that a rebellion is growing on the Tory benches against the government’s plans to cut support for people with cancer. The government is trying to cut employment and support allowance (ESA) for those deemed unfit to work, including thousands of people with cancer, as an “incentive” for them to get a job. After being defeated in the Lords last week, the proposal is due to return to the Commons to be debated again. Alarmingly, Macmillan reports that 54% of Conservative MPs did not know that the cuts would affect people with cancer. Now that they do (Jeremy Corbyn raised the issue during Prime Minister’s Questions this week), many will be deeply unhappy about having to justify the cuts to their constituents.
Meanwhile, several Conservative MPs have called for a U-turn on the Tories’ flagship educational reforms initiated by Michael Gove, saying schools will run out of places unless the government changes its education policy and eases its cuts. As Education Secretary in the coalition government, Gove limited local authorities’ powers to force academies to expand or to open new schools. But as demand for school places surges, we’re now heading for a places crisis, and several Tory MPs, along with the Tory-led Local Government Association, are asking the government to hand back powers to councils, effectively admitting that the policy has failed.
Since the Conservatives won the general election, David Cameron has been given an extraordinarily easy ride by his Tory critics, who were briefly silenced by his unexpected majority. But the honeymoon is over. With the EU referendum in the headlines, a covert leadership battle at the top of the party and a new wave of cuts starting to bite even in the Tory heartlands, Cameron can expect to see more rebellions, more cabinet squabbling and a steady erosion of the “message discipline” that has so far kept his party’s splits off the front pages. And with such a slim majority in the Common, any rebellion could be very dangerous to Cameron, even a small one.
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