The Conservative Party is under more pressure now than at any point since the late 90s.
Now, this might sound like a bold thesis, considering the depths the Tories plumbed when in opposition.
There are two states in which the big parties are safe in the UK political system. If they are in power with a sizeable majority, as Labour were from 1997, it almost doesn’t matter how divided the party is. The top brass will be in such a position of strength that they’ll be able to whip their members into line.
Also, if they are largely united behind a cause or a general stand-point and manage to hold onto votes in their traditional bases, as the Tories did through the early 2000s, they are also quite safe.
Currently, the Tories find themselves in neither position. They do not have a majority and Cameron has pushed party policy much closer to the centre than the vast majority of the party feel comfortable with.
The recent Tory election manifesto is a study in attempting to make centrism palatable to the Tory back-bench MPs. It makes token gestures towards the paternalist Toryism of old, the marriage tax break proposal being a prime example, and makes rightist promises on Europe that the top brass has no idea how it would be able to implement.
However, in the main it is a centrist manifesto. This upset the backbenchers – but they kept quiet in the hope of gaining healthy majority.
In a coalition that has forced them to drop a large proportion of the rightist policies that they had left, many in the party, led by Lord Tebbit, are revolting.
Cameron has recently tried to whip the party into line by neutering an influential committee of backbench MPs (The 1922 Committee) by forcing them to allow ministers to be involved. Cameron won the vote on this, but it only served to highlight the massive divisions in the party, as 118 MPs, a huge number, voted against Cameron’s proposal.
Backbenchers are now, with reason, planning to challenge the constitutionality of the vote. This will only cause more of a division within the party, something which can only end in tears. Disunity within a Government can harmfully distract from the real agendas facing the country.
Cameron may just be able to assuage the rift in party and lead the coalition through its bold and intense program of reform.
However, the seeds of disunity have been sown, and seem likely to bear ugly fruit.