Some moons ago I wrote on the matter of Government reshuffles, those flurries of end of the pier entertainment which used to occupy the minds of ministers more than their job requirements. Read any diary or memoir of the time and the promise of a change in job underlines almost every decision, accompanying every minister like a shadow. The phone at the end of a corridor becomes more attractive than the office secretary.
The other parlour game of British politics is the good old fashioned defection. Once a mainstay of the political process, for whatever reason the high-profile ship jumper has become something of a rear treat. Defectors were always assumed to be somehow “special”, dismissed by former colleagues in often very colourful language (read Alan Clark’s diaries for the most colourful), welcomed with photo-ops and smiles by their new leader. MPs defect less often these days – Quentin Davies and Shaun Woodward being the most recent – and the prominence has been deadened over the years in any case.
Until, perhaps, this year: of the Jubilee, the Olympics and scaremongering Mayans. Starting with a piece in the Times and on ConservativeHome last week, rumours about defections from the Conservatives to UKIP have grown from just the two MPs to potentially a dozen or more. Suddenly the defection thing seems to have regained its relevance and, yes, sexiness. This is the stuff which pumped the blood of long since forgotten political times, after all. Of course, this drum banging intrigue does tend to fall apart at the sight of some of the names – Nadine Dorries is many things, but she’s neither particularly powerful and definitely not sexy. Bill Cash and the like are not exactly big hitters either, being much of the ‘old boys’ brigade for whom accompanying headlines – “Anti-EU backbencher joins anti-EU party” – would not cause David Cameron much of a headache.
Let’s assume one backbench Conservative MP defects prior to, or just following, next month’s local elections. No great problem for Cameron – if the jump is to UKIP and the defector is a known “old boy” looking for handshakes and a new tie, there is no real winner. Farage will point to his new MP sitting with fellow “one party states” George Galloway (Respect, Bradford West) and Caroline Lucas (Green, Brighton Pavilion) and talk of “a new breath of air in British politics”. Here comes the smaller parties, despite first past the post, proving that Britain wants real change.
Due to the passing of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, another LibDem manifesto promise now in law by the way, David Cameron has very little wiggle room to call an early ballot. It’s no longer the case that the Prime Minister of the day can fire the starting pistol on a whim. The pressure to do so in most circumstances would not be enough to ‘create’ circumstances in which MPs vote down their own government, as often happens in countries which have Fixed Terms. If there’s a grouplet of UKIPpers in the Commons, the constitutional consequences are hard to ignore. What government is now running the country? It’s hard enough explaining why a Coalition has legitimacy now, imagine trying to do so if near enough two dozen Tory MPs cross the floor in one swift movement?
To have any legitimacy, the MPs would have to resign their seats and force by-elections. They would have to, for UKIP is not a parliamentary party and their electors cannot just be told that it’s normal for MPs to create parliamentary groupings over a weekend that didn’t exist before. Farage may well be the man with more power than most at the moment.
Cameron has been exceptionally unlucky these past few years. He failed to win an outright majority against an unpopular Labour Prime Minister who dragged the country into the longest, deepest, most damaging recession in peace times. He has struggled to shake off the image of his Cabinet as out of touch, and has had to say goodbye to close allies within his Office at the least appropriate times. He has struggled to maintain opinion poll leads against a Labour Party led by a policy-wonk with all the charisma of a Speak-n-Spell machine.