Political parties, let alone incumbent ones, don’t usually engage in public soul-searching ten weeks out from a general election.
But with the ballot box looming, some of Britain’s leading Tory commentators are wondering aloud if the Conservatives are on the (centre-)right path.
This kind of discussion may seem irrelevant in Scotland where the Tories will be delighted to pick up two seats. Yet, realistically, David Cameron is one of only two candidates who can be Prime Minister in May. Whether Scotland likes it or not, the ideological direction of the Conservative Party matters.
Influential Conservatives Tim Montgomerie and Stephan Shakespeare have launched a new campaign, the Good Right, to fashion a conservatism that can win over voters who dismiss the Tories as the party of the rich. Their 12-point plan slaughters any number of Thatcherite sacred cows, from recommending a house-building programme to a tax on luxury goods, and proposes new ideas that won’t sit well with blue-rinse Tories. (Forcing private schools to ensure one in every four new pupils is on a scholarship from a state school anyone?)
Mr Montgomerie, a former Tory speechwriter and the founder of the ConservativeHome website, has identified a malaise in his party: “The Tories haven’t won a majority in the House of Commons since 1992. They’re unlikely to win the next one either – despite a booming economy and despite the unpopularity of Ed Miliband. The reasons are pretty straightforward.
“The party has never ditched its ‘party of the rich’ problem that grew up during the ‘Loadsamoney’ era of the 1980s; that worsened when Tory MPs came to be seen as sleazy in the 1990s; and which has only worsened during the last five years.”
Former Tory MP and Times columnist Matthew Parris has accused the prime minister he once championed of “trashing his own brand” by tacking to the right and pandering to Ukip sympathisers. Even the Spectator, that great organ of measured and considered conservatism, has taken on a panicked tone.
In the 1970s, a new editorial warns, “the greatest threat to the Conservatives was socialism. Now, the biggest threat to Conservatism is inequality. It is hard to defend the system of free enterprise when it seems that the rising tide just lifts the yachts. It’s hard to talk about a recovery when the average salary is lower than it was eight years ago. And it’s hard to talk about fairness when young graduates who work hard find they still cannot afford a house at the age of 30. There is a feeling that a new divide is opening in Britain — and that the super-rich, especially those of certain age, have spun off into a world of their own.”
When David Cameron took over the Conservative Party in 2005 there was much optimism. “Let sunshine win the day,” he told party members in a speech the following year. The Conservatives, he promised, would “change and modernise our culture and attitudes and identity” to show that “we’re comfortable with modern Britain and that we believe our best days lie ahead”.
“There is such a thing as society,” he clarified. “It’s just not the same thing as the state.”
That positive, forward-looking Toryism has slipped from the agenda. There are several reasons for this. The financial catastrophe forced the Tories to cut more and more deeply than Mr Cameron probably expected in opposition, when George Osborne vowed to “share the proceeds of growth between increased spending on public services and a reduction in taxation and borrowing”. But Mr Cameron’s modernisation project is no longer merely stalled; it is now going into reverse, at speed and in a panic. The man who worked hard to shed the ‘nasty party’ label has allowed the Tories to become a no-more-Mr-Nice-Guy outfit, lashing out at immigrants, the obese, and alcoholics and drug addicts in desperate hope that a mini-tide of populism can take him over the line on May 7. It can’t and it won’t.
What the Tory leader fails to grasp is that winning headlines is not the same thing as winning votes. For every soft-Ukipper he lures back by trying to sound tough, he risks losing a swing voter who is looking for a prime minister and not a discount Richard Littlejohn.
Not that it does him much good. The Prime Minister talks tough on immigration on Monday, only to be slapped down on Wednesday by new figures showing net immigration at just under 300,000. Mr Cameron has trapped himself in a demented cycle of self-harm. He sees a poll showing support leaking to Ukip, makes a tabloid-friendly pronouncement, looks ridiculous trying to pass himself off as a street-hardened hood in a Jimmy Cagney movie, realises it hasn’t won back any support, and so he ramps up the volume next time.
There is a split emerging in the Conservative Party. It is not a replay of the Wets-vs-Drys battle even if it might be mistaken for such. This division is as much about tone as ideology and owes more to policy than to philosophy. It pitches establishment Toryism against an insurgent blue collar conservatism that wants to see the party position itself on the side of the lower middle classes, women, ethnic minorities, and small business owners. The two most effective champions of working-mum conservatism are Robert Halfon and Priti Patel, though both have become necessarily more muted after taking up government roles. Halfon and Patel differ vividly – he is a trade unionist who wants the party to reach out to organised labour, she is a Thatcherite ultra who says there is “nothing civilised” about trade unions – but they both understand that in policy and tone the Conservatives must place themselves as the party for “aspirational” Britain.
This is not about repudiating Thatcherism, much of which even its most visceral opponents now accept in their policies, but about the Conservatives recognising that times have moved on. The 1980s have gone the way of shoulder pads and Duran Duran. No one remembers Who Shot JR any more than they understand why the state once owned the major industries and ministers had to consult trade union barons for permission to govern. The Tories don’t have to abandon their principles – they have to remember them.
Freedom, choice and opportunity are supposed to be the nucleus of conservatism. But what substantive freedom is there for people trapped in social exclusion and zero-hours contracts? And what choice is there between a life on welfare and the soft poverty of part-time and minimum wage work? Opportunity is the motor engine of a free market and a healthy society. But the opportunity to own a home requires homes that are affordable, the opportunity to pursue a fulfilling career demands accessible education, and the opportunity to improve the lives of your children necessitates low-cost childcare.
Empowering people through good government makes them less likely to rely on big government. But for too many in the Conservative Party, this is blasphemy. Margaret Thatcher would (supposedly) never have done this or that and so it may not even be contemplated. Hewing to strictly constructed ideological catechisms is bone-headed; hewing to them when they prevent you from pursuing policies fundamental to your worldview borders on the deranged.
Contemporary politics presents the centre-right politician with two roads. There is the inclusive and incremental conservatism embodied by Canada’s Stephen Harper or the free-wheeling state-slashing of Australia’s Tony Abbott. The former approach has secured a decade in government for a party that looked for a long time like it would never displace the dominant Liberals. It has not been easy, requiring painful compromise and the parking of more radical ideas, but it brought the Canadian Tories a wave of new voters.
The latter path, taken Down Under, has alienated electors after just over a year of government with harsh cuts, misplaced priorities, and an almost contemptuous aloofness. The opposition Labor Party, which had Buckley’s chance of winning back the voters after being turfed out handily in 2013, now enjoys consistent poll leads. Mr Cameron should consider these two routes to governing as a conservative and choose the road less travelled.
But need he even look as far afield as Ottawa? Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson gave a thoughtful speech to her party’s conference last Friday, overlooked by a lot of us because a) it was too long, and b) it followed the Prime Minister. We were wrong. For the conservatism she described to delegates would no doubt have surprised those who hold the party in contempt.
She said: “I’m not in this for the people who’ve already made it in life. I’m here for everyone who just wants a decent job and to make sure their children have more of a chance than they ever did. I’ve heard them be called ‘strivers’ but I only know them as my friends and family. It is our job – it always has been our job – to stand up for them.”
The Labour Party, remarked Harold Wilson, “is a moral crusade or it is nothing”. At some point in post-Thatcher politics, the Conservatives lost the moral impulse and allowed their opponents a clear run at compassion, dignity, justice, and hope. Those are values that should not merely be embraced but heralded by Tories. Reducing inequality, fighting poverty, and fashioning a fair and inclusive society must take their place in Conservative manifestos alongside tax cuts and paring back regulation.
As Tim Montgomerie understands, the Right not only has to be right, it has to be good. If he manages to remain in Number Ten after May 7, Mr Cameron should recognise that he has been given a rare second chance to reform his party. If he doesn’t, his tenure in Downing Street will long be overshadowed by this great missed opportunity.
Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Russell Watkins/Department for International Development by Creative Commons 2.0.