Every recent Tory prime minister has used a big moment to introduce themselves to the electorate. In the 1970s Margaret Thatcher presented herself as the nation’s housewife. Appearing in front of the TV cameras carrying a shopping basket, she talked about how everyday household goods were becoming more and more expensive. The warning from the grocer’s daughter concerned the hottest political issue of the day – inflation.
While Thatcher chose a shopping basket to draw herself towards ordinary families, John Major chose a soapbox. At the start of the 1992 general election he stood on his little wooden crate in the middle of sometimes hostile crowds. It was a flattering contrast to Neil Kinnock’s glitzy election rallies. The down-to-earth message was reinforced by a very powerful election broadcast. We saw Major revisiting the haunts of his upbringing in Brixton, buying tomatoes from the local market and mixing with multi-ethnic Londoners. Here was a Tory leader who loved not just an abstract idea of Britain but its people, too – all of its people.
David Cameron chose a very different defining moment. It aimed for the broadsheet rather than the tabloid market and was more Guardian than Telegraph in style. He went to Norway and a melting glacier. The photograph of him being pulled by huskies across an icy landscape was the image his handlers wanted. Climate change was a critical issue of our age, Cameron said, as he invited Britain to “vote blue and go green”. Fruit smoothies were served at Tory conferences. Conservative employees were given bikes to get from their Millbank HQ to parliament. Al Gore was invited to address Tory MPs.
Climate change was just one of the metrosexual issues that Cameron chose to suggest that the Conservative Party had changed. More women candidates and the concept of the “big society” were two others. The risk for Cameron was always that he wouldn’t be as committed to these changes as he needed to be and that he would run the risk of Tory modernisation appearing shallow and inauthentic. And so it has come to pass. Cameron has in fact played fast and loose with each of his great change factors.
He hasn’t given one big speech on climate change since entering No 10 in May 2010. On women candidates, progress has been mixed. Theresa May has been a successful Home Secretary and Justine Greening, the Transport Secretary, may go to the very top of the party. Other Tory female ministers, however, have struggled. On the big society there has been no breakthrough with the public. Tory activists find it useless on the doorstep. No wonder No 10 hardly mentions its big idea any more.
Does any of this matter? Will climate change or the big society or the number of women in the government be on more than a handful of voters’ minds when they next enter the polling booth? Downing Street’s belief is that Cameron will be re-elected if he manages the economy reasonably well, if the NHS stays out of the headlines and if voters are frightened of or unconvinced by Ed Miliband.
My fear is that this won’t be enough. Even if the Miliband brand is weak, the Labour brand is strong. Labour is still seen as the party of social justice while the Tories are struggling to assert their historical advantage as the party of economic competence. Worse, the right is splitting at a time when the left is uniting behind Labour. The formation of the coalition has prompted left-leaning supporters of Nick Clegg’s party to join the Labour column, while right-leaning Tories have drifted towards the UK Independence Party. I’d put big money on the Cable wing of the Liberal Democrats choosing a coalition with Labour if the next election results in another hung parliament.
The Conservative Party can emerge stronger from the ashes of the coalition in 2015 but the offering has to be consistent with the high points of Cameron’s time at No 10. Education and welfare are the two stand-out strengths. In Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith, the Prime Minister has two of the most outstanding social reformers of our time. It would have been far-fetched to think of the Tories as the party of social reform before Cameron, but no longer. All the ingredients are there. They just need to be knitted together.
IDS is refashioning the welfare state so that work always pays more than benefits. He is reforming pensions so that the burden that faces the next generation of workers is not so impossible that they flee to less taxed nations. He is taking giant steps towards fashioning a welfare state that is focused on caring for the most deserving – the very young, the old, the sick and the severely disabled.
Gove, meanwhile, is pursuing his reforms to education. Over recent decades, the UK has slid down the international education league tables even faster than Leeds United have fallen behind in football. Central to Gove’s purpose is the restoration of honesty and ambition to the exams system.
Clear blue lines
Cameron needs a new defining image in time for the next election and, like those chosen by Thatcher and Major, it must pull him closer to blue-collar Britain.
The content of his welfare speech on 25 June didn’t seem thought through. It appeared to have more to do with bolstering internal party morale at a difficult time than with advancing a new vision of what British society might look like. And yet, buried beneath the politics, there is a big modernising idea that could stand the test of time.
The left’s vision of the good society has long been clear: Labour will build the New Jerusalem by pouring ever more taxpayers’ money into the welfare state. In this age of austerity, that vision has reached the end of the road. In its place could be a Tory vision of social progress built on traditional schooling, incentives to choose work rather than welfare and, I would add, strong families. A Conservative Party that can combine this social message with economic competence might even start winning elections again.
Tim Montgomerie is the editor of the ConservativeHome website