Saturday, May 08, 2010

David Cameron faces Tory party anger.

Oh dear. Now the Tories are starting to eat themselves.

The Observer can reveal that Lord Ashcroft, who pumped £5m into marginal seats, is furious with the Tory leader for having agreed to take part in television debates that he believes undid much of his work for the party.

Friends of Ashcroft also say the peer is angry because he believes Cameron failed to stand up for him properly in the row over his "non-dom" tax status, which harmed the Tories in the run-up to the election.

Today, one senior frontbencher rounded on the Conservative leader, demanding that he sack key figures involved in the campaign, including the man who ran it, George Osborne, the shadow chancellor. The frontbencher said: "He ran his campaign from the back of his Jaguar with a smug, smarmy little clique – people like Osborne, [Oliver] Letwin and Michael Gove. He should get rid of all of them. The party will settle for nothing less."

Another senior and normally loyal Tory MP complained that Cameron's big idea for the campaign – "the Big Society", under which armies of volunteers would come together to tackle the country's ills – was "complete crap".

"We couldn't sell that stuff on the doorstep. It was pathetic. All we needed was a simple message on policy. We could have won a majority if we had not had to try to sell this nonsense."

It was an utterly dreadful campaign with a message that none of us could understand other than it's most basic theme: "Elect me because I am not Gordon Brown".

I watched Michael Portillo on TV the other day saying that he found it impossible to finish the sentence, "You should vote Tory and you will be better off because....."

The truth is that Cameron supplied no such message; indeed, he supplied no message at all that any of us could decipher.

Six months ago I would have said that the Tories would have waltzed into Downing Street, but Cameron fell apart the moment the campaign became serious and people started looking for answers which Cameron appeared unwilling to give.

Cameron is certain to feel the wrath of his MPs at an emergency meeting of the 1922 committee of backbenchers tomorrow, called to discuss a possible coalition with the Lib Dems.

Today, Tim Montgomerie, the editor of the ConservativeHome website, posted a blog saying that Cameron had to adopt a more collegiate style of leadership if he was to have any chance of taking the party with him in talks on a possible deal with the Lib Dems.

For months, leading Tories have complained that the election strategy was being drawn up by a narrow group around the party leader, including Osborne, Letwin, Gove, Steve Hilton, his close adviser, and his communications chief, Andy Coulson.

Arguably the most damaging for Cameron is the tension with Ashcroft. In the early hours of Friday morning, when a hung parliament had become inevitable, Ashcroft said the TV leaders' debates had been a turning point.

"I think from the time the Conservatives were ahead, we then had the debates, which has quite obviously turned everything topsy-turvy and what were natural assumptions before those debates changed the whole of the playing field," he said. "This is the type of result we are now seeing as a consequence of those debates."

Ashcroft has a point. No leader who is ahead in the polls ever agrees to TV debates, it's simply giving your opponents an opportunity to trip you up. Perhaps Cameron felt that he could handle Brown and underestimated Clegg, but that was a fatal error.

Cameron came across in the debates as someone unwilling to answer the questions being put to him. I had been arguing that he was doing that for months on end, but on TV it simply became too obvious to ignore.

Now, he is trying to sell his party a Liberal coalition which they know they should never have had to consider. Their fury is understandable.

It should simply never have come to this.

And I am beginning to have doubts that any deal with the Liberals will ever happen. If the Tories are angry at the thought of having to deal with the Liberals, imagine their rage should the Liberals eventually team up with Labour and leave them out in the cold.

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