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The British Prime Minister David Cameron is facing the biggest political crisis of his career, with questions about his leadership and that of his key lieutenant and long-term ally George Osborne, accusations of his role in the deaths of hundreds of disabled Britons, a blow to his campaign to keep Britain in the European Union, and – worst of all – the resurgent possibility that Scotland could split from the United Kingdom. Where did it all go wrong?
Cameron’s grip on the Conservative Party has always been more tenuous than it appeared: After decades of unseemly infighting, he was at the centre of soaring debates on racism and xenophobia, victimising rather than empathising with the poor, and the spectre of the European question hanging over every major disagreement.
Cameron took decisive action to “detoxify” the party when he took over in 2005, moving it both economically and socially to the centre ground. Issues such as immigration were off-limits – he championed the environment and courted ethnic minorities. He remained ambiguous on whether he supported staying in Europe or leaving.
Cameron’s support base within his own party has always been narrow and begrudging – comparable to that of Tony Blair, who never managed to convince the broader membership that centrism was consistent with party values, or politically strategic.
Cameron faces similar challenges: Although viewed as an arch-Thatcherite outside the party, inside he is a relative leftist, maintaining spending on schools and the National Health Service (NHS) when his members feel he should be cutting deeper.
Number Ten is now likely to be consumed by crisis management and leadership speculation rather than effective campaigning.
Winning a surprise majority in last year’s general election impressed the membership, but as the Brexit debate explodes, the fragility of Cameron’s position is laid barer by the day – alongside that of his Chancellor, Osborne.
Since the early 1990s, the duo have been joined at the hip, both politically and as friends. Osborne had hoped to succeed Cameron, but for months now his hopes have been ebbing away. Events last week were quite possibly the nail in the coffin.
If Cameron knew he would face a fight within his own party over Europe, what he hadn’t counted on was the left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, who took over as leader of the opposition in last September.
The media have positioned Corbyn as a clownish figure, an economic neanderthal whose left-wing views are irrelevant in today’s post-industrial economy.
Yet, while fighting off New Labour loyalists at the rear, Corbyn has ignored the flak in parliament and focused his energies squarely on two issues neglected by his forebears – corporate tax avoidance, and welfare cuts.
About 2,400 disabled or long-term sick workers have died within weeks of being found “fit to work”, and having their benefits withdrawn. Corbyn exposed the moral inadequacies of austerity in his latest budget response last week, a budget which appeared to offer more tax cuts to the well-off, while stripping away essential support for the most vulnerable in society.
The following morning, to Number Ten’s surprise, several Conservative MPs came out in support of Corbyn, saying that cutting disability benefits to pay for tax cuts for the rich was immoral.
A leading Tory disability activist announced his resignation from the party, sabotaging the party’s Conservative Disability Group website as he departed.
By Friday night, Ian Duncan Smith, the secretary of state responsible for delivering welfare cuts, and Cameron’s fiercest opponent on Europe, has resigned, claiming Osborne had forced him into the cuts as a way to protect traditional Conservative voters, notably pensioners, from austerity.
Cynics pointed out the same minister had gone along with the cuts for six years before speaking out – and it is believed by many that he simply wanted to damage the prime minister, and improve chances of a Brexit.
Osborne’s pre-referendum budget was designed to swing undecided middle-class liberals towards staying in, with a new tax on sugary drinks, and the removal of taxes for small businesses and the self-employed.
With unexpectedly effective pressure from the opposition in a race that appears neck-and-neck and a backlash from his own party, any swing Cameron hoped to gain will now be negligible. Every one of March 21’s papers have led with the story of “civil war” in the Conservative Party.
Number Ten is now likely to be consumed by crisis management and leadership speculation rather than effective campaigning. Worst still, for the rest of his term, Corbyn will be able to point to the resignation letter, proving these cuts were “politically motivated, rather than in the national economic interest”.
Osborne went underground for several days – re-appearing in Parliament on the afternoon of March 22. The disability benefit cuts have been called off.
Should Cameron and Osborne fail to prevent a Brexit, what next? The Brexit campaign has the eccentric former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, a long-term rival of Cameron’s, and he would no doubt utilise the win to become prime minister elected by Conservative Party members.
Whether Cameron would step down immediately or not remains to be seen. Osborne is certainly now out of the race – no doubt frustrated given that he has spent the past decade patiently waiting for the top job.
Brexit would also almost definitely spark a second referendum on Scotland’s independence, most likely leading to the break-up of the UK.
Cameron came into power on a “compassionate conservative” platform, ironically with a promise to repair “Broken Britain”. If Brexit goes ahead, he could well end up as the man who broke Britain.
He has more urgent concerns. Corbyn’s opposition to the controversial budget has also gone down well. A poll conducted shortly after the budget showed Corbyn’s ratings ahead of Cameron’s for the first time, a considerable achievement given that last October he was ranked the least popular new opposition leader of all time.
That’s a major win for a left-wing leader, whose centrist critics – especially those within his own party – have labelled him “unelectable“. With local elections in May, Cameron should be even more worried.
Alastair Sloan is a London-based journalist. He focuses on injustice and human rights in the UK and international affairs, including human rights, the arms trade, censorship, political unrest and dictatorships.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.