THE BLOG

Gove and Hammond's Comments Highlight Cameron's Lack of Control

19/05/2013 20:27 BST | Updated 18/07/2013 10:12 BST

The silver lining in David Cameron's current flurry of clouds is that no ministers have yet decided that their career prospects would be better served by resigning from his government. Michael Heseltine, Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe all saw fit to flounce out of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet. Gordon Brown's brief time in office was peppered with resignations, most notably by Caroline Flint, Hazel Blears and James Purnell. Ministerial departures are dramatic and they are symbolic, the bread-and-butter for any onlookers after the scalp of the Prime Minister.

Cameron hasn't had to deal with anything like that yet. His troubles are arguably more dangerous, with some members of his cabinet openly recanting the official line of the PM - or, if we are to be generous, not bothering to correct the impression that they disagree with him. The main offenders have been the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, who've both expressed concerns about Britain's continued membership of the EU. A sympathetic reading of the situation would be that neither condemned Cameron's current position, which states that Britain should renegotiate the terms of our EU role, then call a referendum on the new state of affairs. However, it is clear to most, if not all of us that Gove and Hammond did not say what they did in order to support the Prime Minister. Their true motivations have been hypothesised upon by many: potential leadership positioning by the pair, throwing a bone to the voters enchanted by UKIP, or perhaps reinforcing the 'true' Tory position for the start of the next general election campaign. The effect of their actions, though, is to undermine the Prime Minister, especially as he was abroad when the pair made their remarks, which gives a perception of behind-the-curtain sniping and snarking while 'the boss' is out of earshot. Hammond broke further away from Cameron in other areas too, attacking the same-sex marriage legislation that the PM personally pushed for. That particular intervention may prove to be much more personally wounding to the Prime Minister, as it drives to the heart of his 'modernising' agenda and gives Hammond credentials with Tory activists, many of whom are angry over the gay marriage issue.

Gove and Hammond are still in the cabinet, and only a fool would predict that their resignations are impending. This sense of job security for the two of them only makes their comments more striking. We may perhaps expect a minister fearful of demotion or the sack in the next reshuffle to start shooting their mouths off, in a feeble attempt to gain some support from elsewhere in the party. Gove and Hammond aren't insecure; they are loyal, trusted lieutenants of the PM who are both popular within the party. We should expect conformity from them, not smoke signals to the party faithful that suggest unwillingness to fit the Cameron mould. The PM shouldn't be worried that there are prominent ministers within his cabinet who hold views that differ from his own - this is surely common - but he must be concerned over the fact that they felt able to, in an open and obvious way, transmit these differences to the public. What this boils down to for the Prime Minister is a lack of control.

It is sad to say it, but true, that much of politics these days is concerned with power and control. The last two decades have brought with them the politics of perception, or at the very least caused an increase in the importance of perception. What you do in politics has been jettisoned, to an extent, by how you appear. Witness the Brown transformation from Stalin to Mr. Bean, the failure of his attempts at a 'not flash, just Gordon' image and the subsequent portrayal of him as out-of-touch and laughably inept. These caricatures continued even when growth returned to the economy at the end of his premiership. It is hard to shake off these impressions once they catch the public mood.

Cameron doesn't just have cabinet ministers flouting his authority, damaging as that may be. He finds over a hundred of his backbenchers doing just the same over EU policy. He has one of his top aides (unnamed, thus far) criticising the party's own activists. The newspapers are freely contemplating as to whether there shall be any attempts at a palace coup by Gove, Hammond, or Boris Johnson. These issues are not new. Tory backbenchers, who have no reason to be loyal to Cameron while their chances of promotion are hindered by the limited number of blue seats at the coalition top table, have been in open revolt pretty much since Cameron failed to win a majority. They see him as a disconnected, Tory-in-name-only election loser who throws away any hope of a win in 2015 by allying himself to the left-ish instincts of the Liberal Democrats instead of the more traditional right-wing approach offered by UKIP. That may or may not be a correct characterisation, but it has clearly gained credence among Conservatives and serves to undermine the PM. The atmosphere within the Conservative Party, at least from the outside, stinks of disunity and a marked lack of leadership, and gives the impression of Cameron as a man without a firm hand on the tiller.

A slide in the perception of the Prime Minister's control of events is not something that can be reversed through government policy, like economic growth, unemployment or tax rates. John Major is the best example of the incurability of this particular disease - his attempt to reassert his own personal control with the dramatic 'put up or shut up' leadership election in 1995 failed miserably. Once the aura of control is gone, it is destined not to return, barring something staggering. The thirst on the backbenches for a leader who listens to them cannot in all likelihood be quenched by Cameron. Expect the rumblings within cabinet to grow louder, from sources other than Mr. Gove and Mr. Hammond. The die, it seems, has been cast for the Prime Minister, and the results are far from encouraging.