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Thursday 10th May 2012 | 20:52
It's hard to believe now but just a few weeks ago, the Conservatives were defying political gravity. Neck and neck with Labour in a mid-term, the Lib Dems a spent force electorally, that tempting Tory majority Government seemed to be up for grabs in 2015.
But thanks to one of the most politically inept Budgets of recent years, a string of omnishambles too numerous to list and a set of very bad local election results, the party is now feeling pretty uneasy about itself.
So, it's perhaps no wonder that last night's 1922 Committee meeting was a feisty affair. Yet instead of backbenchers kicking the Government, several MPs lined up to attack colleagues who they felt had been too outspoken before and after the May 3 results.
I've spoken to several of those present and what emerges is this:
Sayeeda Warsi made a speech saying how the party had to unite, while Andrew Feldman gave an update on finances.
But several MPs stepped up to make veiled references to Nadine Dorries' 'arrogant posh boys' quote in the run up to polling day. Without naming Dorries, Kris Hopkins in particular had a go at those who made personal attacks on the Prime Minister*. Richard Harrington, Robert Buckland, Nick Boles and Stewart Andrew said it was time for the party to start believing in itself again despite the election results, stressing it was time for unity.
Yet things really got heated when Stewart Jackson spoke up. Jackson, who had gone on Wato to point up the scale of the defeats the day after the elections, was trying to make the point that the voters had spoken. He wanted to point out too that it would be a bad idea to badmouth UKIP in the long term.
Suggesting that the loyalists were trying to blame the voters rather than the party, Jackson even said that some of his colleagues "sounded like the journalist who said to Mrs Lincoln, 'all things being equal, how was the play?'". But what proved a red rag to the loyalist bulls was when Jackson spoke up to defend the right of unhappy MPs to speak publicly. This was seen as a defence of Dorries and he faced sustained attacks by Kris Hopkins, Anna Soubry and Claire Perry.
In response, Jackson hit back at Perry by saying "those who are trying to shout me down include Mrs Perry. She has been a member of the party for a shorter time than I have been a Member of Parliament". Cue more heckling. Yes, it was that kind of meeting.
Allies of Jackson think the counterblast at the ill-tempered meeting went too far. His critics say that they were not being bitter but were tipped into angry remarks by what they considered provocation. One old hand tells me: "It's way over the top to call it a bloodbath." This MP adds: "It's nothing compared with the rancour of the 1990s!"
Jackson left half way through the meeting, but Dorries stayed right to the end as she was subjected to the 'witch's ducking stool', as one present put it. She was silent throughout.
Intriguingly, one of the loyalists who spoke up at the meeting was seen coming out of George Osborne's office just half an hour earlier.
As Tim Montgomerie points out, there was another interesting development last night in that before the 1922, the PPSs had their own meeting. Crucially, it was suggested that the PPSs should back the 'modernising' slate of 301 Group MPs. At least three of the 301 group - Priti Patel, Charlie Elphicke and George Holingberry - were effectively 'presented' as the candidates to back, one source says.
Commons veteran Keith Simpson, who happens to be William Hague's PPS, was among those advocating the plan, I'm told. Some viewed this with suspicion, claiming that Simpson is too close for comfort to the PM's PPS Des Swayne and claim the whole thing smacks of No.10 trying to skew the forthcoming election for the 1922.
Which brings me to the final point. The very idea of allowing PPSs to vote in the 1922 elections is seen by some MPs as a very undesirable development.
One source says that the Executive of the 1922 discussed two weeks ago the prospect of giving the PPSs the vote. Crucially, the decision is now formal - or appears to be. The party whip went out yesterday with the advice that the 'bag-carriers' would indeed be allowed to take part next Wednesday.
One backbencher is not remotely happy. "Given the significance of this decision, which will irrevocably change the balance of power between the executive and Conservative backbenchers, it should only have ever been agreed with a vote of all backbenchers," they tell me. "Whatever the outcome of the elections, historians may view this as the day the 1922 lost its remaining teeth. PPSs should not be given the vote because they are part of the payroll vote."
But others point out that former '22 chairman Michael Spicer was the one to institute the historic change to allow PPSs to vote: but as this was in Opposition it has never been tested. Some say '22 chairman Graham Brady is simply being pragmatic. Others counter that in by-elections to the '22 so far, the PPSs have been excluded precisely because they are seen as part of Government.
Still, others say that given the make-up of the PPSs (some are not Government loyalists), it will be no bad thing to have their votes. It will be ordinary backbenchers who really decide the outcome, some say. One MP tells me that most of the whips are actually doing their best these days to pour oil on troubled waters, acting as a conduit for discontent and not just trying to snap people into line.
Either way, it all shows that the Tory Parliamentary Party is not a happy ship right now. Let's see how next week's 1922 elections turn out.
*FOOTNOTE: David Cameron himself was tonight holding a No.10 reception for Parliamentary candidates. He told them that he was in the Coalition for five years, but he had now 'dealt with' the Lib Dems and it was time to focus on Labour. By 'dealt with', I'm told he meant they will inevitably lose their seats as a result of being in the Coalition. That's a pretty brutal assessment about your friends and partners..
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