Why Cameron could be ultimate winner in Tory Game of Thrones
11 June 2014 -
The face-off between Michael Gove and Theresa May has only underlined the strength of the prime minister’s leadership, writes Mark Fuller
While David Cameron is often said to model his leadership and political persona on Tony Blair, he will have been glad not to have had the looming threat of a powerful rival working to undermine him. While the infamous “Granita pact” may have given Blair a clear run at the Labour leadership in 1994, it meant that Gordon Brown’s leadership claims were never fully defeated. As a result, much of Blair’s premiership was dogged by the mutinous advances of his Chancellor.
David Cameron does not have the same problem. In 2005’s Conservative leadership contest he saw off a host of heavyweight rivals. Much as many in his Party may have since grown frustrated at Cameron’s leadership, there can be no denying that David Davis, Liam Fox and Ken Clarke were roundly defeated. Likewise, where many Prime Ministers have wrestled with the regicidal ambitions of their Chancellors, George Osborne’s fortunes appear to be as one with those of his more senior colleague. And while Boris Johnson has the hearts of many Conservatives, his threat to Cameron’s position is neutered while he remains outside of Parliament. However, Cameron’s reign will not last forever and leadership ambitions are deferred rather than absent. This week’s skirmishes between Michael Gove and Theresa May show that while Cameron’s position remains secure, the battle for the right of succession is well underway.
Theresa May has seen her prospects enhanced by what is commonly deemed to be a successful tenure at the Home Office. Indeed, a recent poll of Conservative members made her a firm favourite to succeed Cameron. And while Michael Gove is on record as having no leadership ambitions of his own, he is widely believed to have an interest in shoring up George Osborne’s position as the continuity candidate. Meanwhile, one or more of Jeremy Hunt, Grant Shapps, Chis Grayling and Phillip Hammond are bound to have their eye on the top prize, as will the highly regarded new Cabinet member, Sajid Javid. If more of these contenders seek to diminish the claims of the others Cameron could spend the next year presiding over a Cabinet akin to the warring families of Westeros.
Indications that members of the Conservative top team are more interested in enhancing their own prospects rather than working together for the good of the country will hamper the chances of success in next year’s election. However, any attempt to rein in the ambitions of ministers is likely to result in more of the underhand manoeuvring we’ve seen in the past week – those feeling quashed are unlikely to contribute to the common good. Instead, Cameron needs to give contenders licence to bolster their own credentials in a way that does not necessitate undermining rivals. This means empowering ministers with the autonomy to demonstrate that they have cast iron grips on their departments, and that they (and they alone) are driving their respective policy agendas. Wherever possible, Cameron needs to avoid the appearance that Number 10 is behind every initiative, allowing ministers to take the credit for popular measures.
The good news is that David Cameron has a decent record on this score. In another contrast to Tony Blair, he has resisted the urge to run a “control and command” government where every policy is in some way associated with No 10. However, this hands-off approach has often led to accusations of laziness and, as the election approaches, Cameron could be tempted to reassert his prime-ministerial standing by getting involved in briefs across government. This would be a mistake. By allowing minsters to grow their own reputations he will be able to head into the election with a legitimate claim to lead a team of political “big beasts”. The counterpoint this will offer to the (arguable) anonymity of the Labour frontbench will be a powerful electoral asset – and ironically, help secure his place on the throne a little longer.
Mark Fuller is associate director at corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications
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