Senior Tories are already discussing holding an "open, televised" contest for the next leader of the Conservative Party in an attempt to prevent a Gordon Brown-style coronation of George Osborne, it emerged yesterday.The paper went on to say that this open contest is being planned for when David Cameron steps down rather than as a plot against him, but even this reflects poorly on his authority after only two years as prime minister.
As the paper also said, that contest has already begun. Michael Gove's plan to bring back O levels is best understood in the light of it - so the more interesting question is not whether Nick Clegg and Sarah Teather knew of his plans but whether David Cameron knew of them.
And Cameron's own speech on social security can also be seen as a move in that game. It is almost as though he feels obliged to campaign for the Conservative nomination in 2015.
The trouble for the Conservatives is that in campaigning for the support of their own activists, their leaders may put off the more liberal voters they need to win over if they are to win a majority next time.
Jeffrey M. Stonecash describes how this process operates across the Atlantic in his New Directions in American Political Parties:
The primary electorate is nearly always more ideologically extreme than the general electorate, with Democratic primary voters more liberal and Republican primary voters more conservative than the full electorate. Each member must therefore appeal to a more extreme constituency for nomination and then a more moderate one for election.
This dual pull - to the center for reelection and away from the center for nomination - is a common and repeated tension. Even in the general election, the candidate is often pulled one way to appeal to her party’s 'base' (which is often even more extreme than the primary electorate) and the other way to appeal to the swing voters more in the center.The decline in membership of all political parties adds to the danger for the Conservatives. Often it is the odd and the driven who remain involved while the moderate and sensible who drift away. (This, of course, does not hold true of my fellow Liberal Democrats.) Thus the electorate to whom leading Tories have to appeal is becoming progressively more extreme.
Remember, too, Calder's Fourth Law of Politics: The more extreme a person's view, the more certain he or she will be that the majority of voters share them.
One way out of this problem for the Conservatives was suggested in the Coalition Agreement between them and the Liberal Democrats:
We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years. These funds will be allocated to all political parties with seats in Parliament that they take up, in proportion to their share of the total vote in the last general election.The primary electorate may be more extreme than the general electorate, but it will certainly be more representative of the concerns of the electorate as a whole than the small group that selects Tory candidates at the moment.
Why have we heard no more of this idea?