No party conference goes exactly according to plan – just ask Nigel Farage – and as Cameron prepares for the Tory get together in Manchester he will perhaps be hoping, above all else, that he gets through the week without upset. And he certainly has reason to be up beat; the economic growth figures are positive, the polls are narrowing (even level-pegging in some cases), the LibDems seem less keen to defenestrate their leader before the election and Angela Merkel, the leader who gives his policy of renegotiation in Europe its greatest credibility has just been returned to power. But there are clouds on the horizon: one is the growing confidence of the back of the bus brigade in his own party – those who appear to have been in continuous opposition since about 1994 regardless of where there party was - and the other the crowd on another bus altogether, one marked UKIP. It is managing these two issues that requires a deft and delicate hand.
But Cameron is not renowned for his judgement – he can be impulsive - and one of the key things he needs to achieve in Manchester is a compelling narrative that can win back the UKIPers from the right without pushing other supporters on the left into the arms of the Lib Dems or Labour.
That there has always been a disconnect between some of his backbenchers and the Cameron project has never been in doubt. But as we get closer to a General Election it is clear that the disaffected are growing in confidence. This was brought into sharp focus by the vote on Syria where a significant minority voted against the Government not on the merits of the motion but as a way of registering their anger at the leadership, and at Cameron in particular. But it goes further than that.
Is the gulf between the Cabinet and Conservative MPs widening?
Click here for more insight into how the Cabinet and Conservative MPs compare online. (PDF, 729kb)
As our analysis shows, many of those most active on social media (largely but not exclusively drawn from the back of the bus) are talking about the Dog & Duck issues that Cabinet Tweeters appear less vocal about. And it is on these issues: Europe, Immigration, Gay marriage and HS2 that UKIP support is also largely built.
So to create a narrative that keeps the Coalition going until 2015, and probably beyond, requires Cameron to bring the disaffected back into the fold without alienating existing supporters. And at the same time, it needs to ensure he keeps his loyal MPs on side by not going too far in either direction. Many is the loyal backbench MP, in marginal seats, who are close to breaking point by what they see as self-indulgent rebels, often in safer seats, making the chances of re-election more remote through disloyalty and appearing to be divided.
And in this challenge, Cameron might just have been given his best chance of facing down his internal critics. It came in the form of Ed Miliband’s speech in Brighton in which the Labour leader’s championing of the consumer has been seen through the prism of a return to socialist principles of the 1970’s. Such a move will have shored up his own position within old Labour but for the LibDems who have been quietly tiptoeing into Labour’s arms, socialism is anathema. If ‘Red Ed’ is back, then perhaps too will be an exodus of just the votes Labour need to win in 2015. And at the same time, the Tories who threw their lot in with Cameron and thought they could vote UKIP because there wasn’t anything to choose between Labour and Conservatives might just begin to reconsider.
Of course, politics is more than just about conferences. But Cameron will want to play the statesman in Manchester, the Leader whose policies are in his view paying dividends. He’ll want to show that all the boats are rising, not just the yachts. An he’ll want to welcome back all those who wandered into the arms of UKIP. Apart, perhaps, from Godfrey Bloom.