It has been an open secret for months that a small, tightly knit group of Tory MPs has been plotting to destroy David Cameron. They can be seen conferring quietly in tea rooms and corridors, surreptitiously sounding out support. There has been serious talk of a list of signatures to be sent to Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, demanding a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister.
But until now there has been nothing tangible: no names, no timetable and no public evidence of the Tory revolt against Mr Cameron. This weekend everything changed. Adam Afriyie, MP for Windsor, was outed as a figurehead for rebel Conservatives looking for an alternative to David Cameron. Mark Field, a highly ambitious backbencher who holds the plum seat of Westminster, has been revealed as his lieutenant.
Mr Afriyie’s supporters believe that he is the perfect man to shake up the Conservative Party and turn it into a potent, election—winning force. They call him the “Tory Obama”—and the comparison with the American president carries some weight. The 47—year—old MP was brought up by a single mother on a south London council estate. The son of a Ghanaian father and a white English mother, he broke free from his background to make a reputed fortune of £100 million in business. Mr Afriyie is charming, personable and the father of four children with his wife Tracy—Jane, former wife of Kit Malthouse, the deputy mayor of London.
No wonder Mr Afriyie’s supporters believe they have a story to tell. No wonder they are convinced that their hero could stretch out to parts of the country inaccessible to David Cameron and his gilded clique of old Etonian friends. No wonder they see him as the future of the party.
Mr Field, who appears to be acting as Mr Afriyie’s campaign manager, admits to talking up his man’s chances, but claims that he would stand only if Mr Cameron lost the next election and stepped down as party leader. This statement can be taken with a pinch of salt. Running any kind of leadership campaign counts as disloyalty with a capital D.
Field, Afriyie and everyone associated with them will be regarded by Downing Street as conspirators. From this moment on they will be marked men. And understandably so. Politics is a ruthless business, and recent history shows that no Tory leader is ever safe against conspiracy. Like the interior of Mali, large tranches of the Conservative Party have become an ungoverned space, just waiting for an interloper to raise the flag of open revolt. In recent months I have frequently been shocked at the scale of venom, contempt, and even hatred, expressed in private towards the Prime Minister.
Many bitterly resent their exclusion from power—although few admit to this (very natural) emotion. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that both Mr Afriyie and Mr Field were snubbed by the leadership.
And there are many other Tory MPs in the same position, yearning for a ministerial job, but excluded from office and understandably resentful. So the rebels are working on fertile ground. They have, however, made two fundamental errors of judgment.
First, there is no chance that Mr Afriyie can become Tory leader, either before or after the next election. He simply lacks the standing in the party and the ministerial experience. He is nevertheless dangerous, because he has the capacity to destabilise the Prime Minister by stirring up discontent, rather like Sir Anthony Meyer famously did by running as a “stalking horse” against Margaret Thatcher in 1989.
The comparison is not exact, because Conservative rules have changed since Sir Anthony’s challenge, and there is no need for a stalking horse figure. Just 15 per cent of the parliamentary party (46 MPs) need to write to the 1922 chairman to prompt a confidence motion. If the Prime Minister were to lose the resulting vote, Cabinet big beasts such as Michael Gove, Theresa May and Owen Paterson would enter the fray. Mr Afriyie would not have a chance.
We now come to the second mistake by Mr Field and Mr Afriyie. They have allowed their names to come out into the open—a fatal error. Now they have broken cover, their every action and word will be reported back to Downing Street. Furthermore, the timing could not be worse. Thanks to last week’s referendum pledge, Mr Cameron’s standing inside the Conservative Party is now higher than at any time since he became Prime Minister. So he is safe for the time being. But if he fades in popularity as the election approaches, his enemies, it has become abundantly clear, will be only too willing to strike.