The Conservative party conference starting tomorrow, will probably be the biggest test of David Cameron's premiership to date. You might wonder why that should be? After all, he is the leader of the country, and his party is in government for the first time since 1997. Indeed, the conference should be a celebration, and the atmosphere should be triumphant.
The Conservatives did not win the large majority many in the party expected. They failed to gain one at all, and the arithmetic forced them into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, something that has upset many Tories, and Lib Dems. Which is exactly why it will be hard! The delegates may well be in a party mood, but the leadership will be well aware of the difficulties laying in store. The government is not a Tory one, or not a completely Tory one anyway. It is a coalition, and coalitions, no matter how tightly crafted they may seem, have inherent dangers.
Liberal Democrats who see no hope of front bench positions at any stage are speaking out against coalition policy. Even members inside the cabinet have made noises which counter official policy, particularly Vince Cable on immigration.
Liberal Democrat unhappiness to a certain extent could be expected, they ran on different manifestos during the election, and the Lib Dems, made a centre of their campaign a warning that a Tory government would raise VAT. So concerned indeed were they, that many, including Nick Clegg, were inviting people to vote Liberal Democrat to keep the Conservatives out.
But there is another danger lurking and that is Tory backbenchers, especially those who thought they might be in line for government jobs, suddenly finding them going to Liberal Democrats. There is also another breed of backbencher, those who would rather a Tory minority, or even another election to try and obtain a majority. I spoke to Conservative councillors in May, who would rather the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with Labour, than give anything on electoral reform.
It is this issue that could cause Cameron his biggest headache of the week. It is strange really, when there are arguments going on between the treasury and departments over budgets, including a big one brewing with Defence Secretary Liam Fox, which I blogged on yesterday
There are also suspicions that Fox may kick up a fuss, though if rumours are correct, Iain Duncan Smith appears to have won his battle for funding in Work and pensions. But this is part of the reason why the Conservatives cannot afford to be triumphant, and Cameron knows this.
Electoral reform seems such a minor issue compared to things like cuts in welfare, police, education, health etc, yet it is something that really exorcises the grassroots. So, if the subject is brought up, than expect almost no support whatsoever, not even for Cameron's line of voting for the referendum in parliament, then campaigning against it in the country. This becomes even more important now that the new Labour leader Ed Miliband has confirmed that if it goes ahead, he officially be campaigning in favour of AV, along with the Liberal Democrats. Therefore, as with Europe in the past, the leadership may seek to sideline the debate in conference, so as to try and present a united front to the public.
I do not intend here to debate the justification for the depth of the cuts, but what Cameron does know, is that there will be a great deal of unhappiness in the country over what will happen. He will be looking to tell his party to stay strong in the face of what is to come, because, he believes, it will pay off in the long run.
As David Cameron faces this three pronged attack; unhappy Tory ministers, backbenchers and members, Liberal Democrat MPs, cabinet members and members, and the general public who face losing jobs and services, he will have to not only be realistic about the challenges, he says, they face, but also to get his delegates to realise that now is not the time for triumphalism, that will have to wait. They will need to see if the coalition lasts the full term, if the policies they've implemented have been successful, and they win the next election. Then they can celebrate!