One way or another David Cameron is a doomed man.
Regardless of the result of Britain’s forthcoming referendum on Europe, Britain’s prime minister faces being booted out of office. On that much most political pundits agree.
Such unanimity is scarcely surprising. When it comes to disposing of its leaders, the Conservative Party has a tradition of metaphorical ‘murder most foul’ that eclipses that, in the physical sense, of Jack the Ripper.
What would be far more shocking than David Cameron’s demise would be David Cameron’s survival. That is unlikely to happen, if only because Cameron himself has announced his intention to step down. But even if he hadn’t he would be driven from the office – and not in the limousine that takes him to Buckingham Palace each week.
His predecessors all appear, every single one of them, in a catalogue of genteel political assassinations going back half a century; every Tory prime minister since Churchill, in fact. To be fair, some were more the architects of their own demise than were the plotters they had gathered about them. But plotters need only the flimsiest of excuses to depose a prime minister they think has become an electoral burden, or merely a political nuisance.
Anthony Eden was the first to go, brought down by the Suez crisis, a blunder probably brought about as much by poor health as bad judgement. Either way, the Tory grandees quickly moved in to ask him to step down, quietly and well-excused, rather than hang around to face the inevitable open rebellion of the party’s liberal wing. Eden was indeed poorly and in the event didn’t need a great deal of persuading to pack his bags. Good riddance was not just the Tory party’s harsh verdict, but that of the country.
His successor, Harold MacMillan, was another who ostensibly retired for health reasons rather than be forced out. He had been a charismatic and in some ways innovative leader, but he had been in office for too many years, and the feeling in Westminster was that he was losing his grip. The point was palpably demonstrated in his inept responses to the Profumo scandal, in which his Minister for War lied to the House of Commons about his relationship with Christine Keeler, a good-time girl, which unleashed the press to reveal a series of lurid sketches purporting to reveal the sexual peccadilloes of the ruling class, most of which had little or nothing to do with Profumo’s errant behaviour.
As it happened, Mr. MacMillan, who at the high point of his premiership had been known as ‘Super-Mac’, came down with a bit of prostate trouble, and used it to grasp the opportunity to retire on the grounds that carrying on during his recovery would be too onerous for him and too distracting for the government. The plotters, some of whom had earlier gathered round his hospital bed, nodded sagely. Many, it was noted, had been victims of MacMillan’s infamous ‘night of the long knives’, in which several cabinet ministers had been sacked, some for reasons that many still couldn’t explain.
The once ruthless MacMillan now bequeathed the office to Sir Alec Douglas Home. (Tories didn’t go in for leadership elections in those days, preferring their prime ministers to ‘emerge’, as it were, from soundings taken within the so-called ‘magic circle’ of party chieftains.) Sir Alec was a cadaverous looking Scottish aristocrat who seemed to have returned to society from a bygone age. Clearly not up to the job of adapting to a wider world much changed from the narrow one that he’d been born into – and after having renounced his peerage in order to take the job – he served less than two years in office before losing a general election to Harold Wilson’s Labour Party. He promptly resigned, before the vultures had a chance to pick over the corpse, and scuttled back to the Highland grouse moors whence he had arrived.
Edward Heath, too, met a grisly end. Once he’d departed his one recognisable accomplishment had been to negotiate Britain’s entry into what was then known as the European Common Market. This was not necessarily a source of his popularity. In fact, he wasn’t popular at all, for any reason. His more visible legacy was to have presided over the worst period of industrial chaos even in Britain’s chequered history, when uncollected rubbish piled up on the streets and households found their consumption of gas and electricity severely rationed. Heath may not have been prised from 10 Downing Street by Machiavellian colleagues – the electorate would take care of that – but he almost certainly would have been.
Margaret Thatcher’s downfall has been well documented in books, films and television programmes. By common consent in right-wing circles, the self-styled Iron Lady had been the most successful peacetime prime minister of the twentieth century, which accolade was considered all the more valid in light of the countervailing view in left-wing circles that she had been the worst. But all good things come to an end, and in the Tory party it’s usually a sticky one. When the Tory buzzards began to smell blood in the air following what should have been a token leadership challenge by a cabinet minister, Michael Heseltine, it was not because she had faltered politically but because she had failed to observe social niceties. It was a crime committed more in omission than in commission, that of going out of her way to belittle those colleagues she considered ‘wet’. Those who had suffered under the Thatcherite lash gleefully (in private) seized the chance to bring her down, for all the public crocodile tears of regret.
John Major was her chosen successor. He wasn’t thrown overboard, but he was forced by his right wing to cling to power rather than being allowed to embrace it, famously referring to certain members of his cabinet as ‘the bastards’. They weren’t named, of course, but everyone knew who they were.
So, Cameron is in good – or bad – company. The knives are being sharpened as I write (I suppose vultures sharpen claws, but never mind, the metaphor holds). Cameron’s sin is less easily identified than those of his predecessors, but it matters not. He has outlived his purpose to the Conservative Party and must pay the price.
The Labour Party indulges in no such blood-letting – but right now there seems to be no blood to let.
Enter, presumably, Boris, Mayor of London, Member of Parliament, bon vivant, author and raconteur par excellence.
And if ever a man knew what a sticky end is, he’s the one. Good luck to him. He’ll need it.