In defence of Cameron's conservatism

The PM's modernisation project has been a political and a policy success.

Since the Budget, the Conservatives have suffered from a few bad headlines and a drop in the polls. Ukip have enjoyed a sudden surge in support. The disgruntled – who have loathed David Cameron’s centrism for years – have pounced: this proves, apparently, that the modernisation project has failed. Time to bin it.

Fortunately, as Oliver Letwin has said, senior ministers don’t believe in running government like a magazine. They “believe in running government like a government". Ignore occasional blips and unpopular patches, overall the Conservative modernisation project is in actual fact very successful, both politically and in regards to policy.

Cameron couldn’t even win a majority in 2010, they howl. Well, the party did gain more seats than at any election since 1931, and did receive a record swing of 5.1 per cent from Labour. Compare that to Thatcher in 1979, who received a swing from Labour of 5.3 per cent. The Conservatives must have been doing something right.

Even now, during a time of severe cuts to public spending, the Conservatives enjoy a relatively high poll rating. Cameron is popular and his party is more trusted than Labour on the economy.

As Professor Tim Bale shows, in a first-past-the-post system, the winning party is the one that hoovers up the most floater voters who sit in the middle of the political spectrum. Quite simply, the Conservative Party – as polling by Lord Ashcroft reveals – didn’t do enough – and still doesn’t do enough - to convince these centre-ground voters to secure a parliamentary majority. That’s the problem.

Still, there are complaints that Cameron is conceding too much ground to the Liberal Democrats and abandoning true Tory values by focusing on gay and green issues. But these are just part of a broad package, and are not incompatible with Tory sentiments on freedom and stewardship. Actually, the coalition government has a whole array of reforms that ought to be very pleasing to Tory activists: a reduction in public expenditure, the use of a veto in EU negotiations, welfare reform, the lowering of income and corporation tax, the dismantling of state control in education, greater control to front-line professionals in the NHS. The list goes on.

But still there is discontent, and threats of resignations to Ukip. And so it becomes clear what is at the heart of all this ill-feeling: doctrinaire libertarianism. Ukip is a party of libertarian purists – those who believe the state or multinational governments should basically have no role in telling institutions or individuals what to do.

Such pure libertarianism has some merits, but two key flaws. The first, and the most major, is that it refuses to acknowledge how culture and poverty in a system of entirely voluntary exchange restricts individual choice, and that the state can play a positive role in rectifying this to expand freedoms.

The second, and most relevant, is that it is rigid, ideological and extreme. These libertarians do not see society as an ecosystem of different – often conflicting - interests with the role of Government being to carefully balance them to achieve the optimum equilibrium between equity and efficiency. Rather, they believe everyone has their own interest which should they be able to pursue regardless of the externalities, except if it is criminal, and government should just get out of the way to allow them to do it.

The result then is that purist libertarians are never satisfied.  Never content until the UK pulls out of the EU altogether. Never happy until public services are entirely independent of state rules and control full stop. Never pleased until the government and the EU stops issuing directives that regulates individual behaviour, such as the smoking ban. No wonder they are perpetually dissatisfied with the Prime Minister.

Such a mind-set applies to their approach to politics, as with many other ideologues. They are not satisfied until conservatism – and their particular form of conservatism – triumphs in every decision and policy of government. Coalition, then, is abhorrent. Such tribalism, disappointingly, misses the fact that, as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, “each team is composed of good people who have something important to say”.

Ironically, if they join Ukip, their only way of gaining real influence in government would be through a coalition. Better, surely to stay inside the party – a coalition in itself – to have real, long-lasting effect. Indeed, as a Conservative who values different perspectives around a table, I’d like those libertarians to stay.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue.

Tories who have loathed Cameron’s centrism for years have pounced. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.