Manoeuvring into position for a tilt at the leadership

WARREN HAYDEN: Oh, we do love to be beside the seaside

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In his quiet moments, David Cameron will be aware of something resembling a soft-shoe shuffle taking place behind him.

It’s an eerie and slightly unnerving sound made by cabinet colleagues manoeuvring into position for a tilt at the leadership as soon as the Conservatives lose the next election.

The likes of Theresa May and Philip Hammond are convinced the party will have to abandon the crowded centre of British politics if it is to regain power in 2020.

They believe Cameron and his crony, George Osborne, will have become bored with politics after 2015, and will have moved on to pastures more lucrative. This will then be a propitious moment for the Conservatives to shift towards the right.

In the meantime, May and Hammond are intent upon giving their right-wing credentials an airing – and initial attempts have been crudely disguised as ‘budget advice’.

Publicly telling the Chancellor to keep his fingers out of funds intended for the Home Office and Ministry of Defence, and to trim welfare payments instead, is unsubtle but reasonably effective.

By aiming their complaints at George Osborne, rather than directly at David Cameron, they hope to achieve two things. The first is to create a bogeyman out of the Chancellor, who is a soft target because they believe he is distrusted by the electorate at large and disliked by most Tory backbenchers anyway.

The second is to pretend they are not stabbing their leader in the back, merely preparing to defend their territory when Osborne mounts his raids.

They have to take this circuitous approach because the principle of collective responsibility still has to be observed, even in a somewhat rickety and unconvincing form.

Sitting on their hands is also not an option, because their chief rival for the leadership – Boris Johnson – is rampaging around unencumbered by Westminster responsibility of any kind.

He can say what he likes, how he likes and when he likes without being accused of treachery. They know only too well this freedom will have given him a head start when the battle for the soul of the party begins in earnest.

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