UK Politics

Analysis: Why some Tories are uneasy with the coalition

For some Conservative MPs this will not prove to be a particularly happy new year.

They return to Parliament on Monday with the coalition government preparing to give prisoners votes, scrap control orders and approve the text of a bill on the EU they suspect is at best pointless and at worst dangerous.

Image caption Some Tory MPs fear secret plans to make the coalition more permanent.

A number of Tory members suspect a clique around David Cameron is secretly plotting to tie them ever closer to the Liberal Democrats, and would even prefer a coalition government after the next election to an outright Conservative victory.

And yet - for now there is little sign of that unhappiness threatening to topple the coalition.

On the face of it the second day of the new term will feature a Tory whip's worst nightmare - six hours of debate on the UK's sovereignty.

Eurosceptics have already tabled 46 amendments and 5 new clauses to a bill the government says will ensure "significant" EU treaties must be approved by a referendum of UK voters

Its critics have called it "toothless".

More amendments are planned, with some wanting a referendum on withdrawing from the EU to be debated.

The Eurosceptics can prove potent. The coalition's biggest parliamentary insurrection came not during the tuition fees vote but on the EU budget, when 37 Conservatives rebelled.

Newly elected MPs

Those Eurosceptics and the Labour front bench - who disagree on much but believe this bill represents bad law - could end up voting together.

Does the government face defeat? Some of its seasoned Euro-critics doubt it.

They suggest the planning and arm twisting needed to raise the support among Conservative MPs necessary for an upset has not taken place.

One says he will vote with the rebels, but does not believe a potentially complex debate about sovereignty is the moment to make a major stand. Another vocal but less experienced Eurosceptic says he will for now go along with the whips. "Very few are prepared to vote against," he says.

Some Conservatives with years of opposing the EU under their belt doubt the commitment of Tories elected last year who profess Euroscepticism.

One urges onlookers to judge MPs not just by their impassioned anti European speeches, but by the division lobby they choose. He says: "Politicians are more than happy to parade Eurosceptic credentials, but then don't vote that way."

Tory backbenchers know they cannot rely on Labour's support. Its front benchers will be extremely reluctant to give any impression they are being led into an alliance with Eurosceptics.

So what of the other potential flashpoints?

The government is poised to announce big changes to control orders. The former Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard has already said they should remain and he will not be alone in opposing any plan to get rid of them. But those views will be balanced by others on the Conservative benches who think the orders breach long-established rights and must go.

Future of the party

One senior minister concedes giving votes for prisoners will prove more difficult. David Cameron has said the thought of allowing it makes him physically ill, but his government says a European Court ruling has obliged it to enfranchise those serving fewer than four years.

The Cabinet Office confirms that will require a new law, which means a full timetable of debates in Parliament, with rebellions likely.

For some Conservatives these are separate debates, engaging different individual MPs. Others though see a theme with the concerns of backbenchers on the right of the party being repeatedly ignored, while the worries of prominent Liberal Democrats are carefully addressed.

Add to this the disappointment among those Conservatives who had hoped for ministerial office if their party had won an outright majority, and a slow burning resentment remains that could yet flicker into something more threatening

The issue that gnaws away most painfully at some Conservatives is unlikely ever to come to a vote in the Commons. It is the future of the Conservative Party.

The Conservative MP Mark Pritchard has gone public with a newspaper article claiming there are "purple plotters" trying to permanently merge the efforts of the Tory and Liberal Democrat parties to create a "Frankenstein" political movement.

Mr Pritchard is no household name, but he is the secretary of the influential 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers.

Others on the Tory backbenches speak more privately, but express similarly suspicions.

One explains he believes there is a "secret project" to draw Liberal Democrats into the Conservative Party and fix its politics on the left of Tory traditions. It is - he explains - a "constitutional coup".

Another says: "It's such a huge issue to say we're dumping the old Tory party and we're creating something that's a merger between the right of the Liberal party and the left of the Tory party.

"I personally think this is the ambition of the leadership - we've seen so many kites being flown on this by people close to the leadership."

Mr Cameron has said the two parties fighting separately at the next election remains the "likelihood". Nick Clegg has gone further, saying: "Let me be absolutely clear once and for all. The Liberal Democrats will fight the next election as we did the last - as an independent party in every constituency in the country."

In the face of suggestions that that might not, or should not, be the case from figures such as the well connected backbencher Nick Boles or the former Prime Minister Sir John Major, the words of the prime minister and his deputy have not assured every Conservative that all is well.

And while the prime minister says his party is "fighting very hard for every vote" in the Oldham by election, his internal critics think the campaign against the Liberal Democrat candidate there has been lacklustre by design.

In the coming months the Tory whips will do their job trying to persuade potential rebels to back the government's business in Parliament.

Some of those rebels want explicit reassurances from their leader not about individual policies, but about the fate of their party.

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