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Leader: The rise and fall of the Conservatives as the party of one nation

It is now 20 years since the Tories won a parliamentary majority. They may not do so again.

For much of the 20th century, the Conservative Party was one of the most formidable election-winning machines in Europe. The story of British democracy from 1918 to 1997 is one of Tory dominance punctuated by sporadic periods of Labour rule. Yet it is now 20 years since the party of Churchill and Thatcher last won a parliamentary majority. For a party whose raison d’être has often been the preservation of power, it is a melancholy truth.

The Conservatives’ misfortune is to be led by a man who failed to win the last election in the most propitious circumstances and who, after an energetic start, seems to have lost all sense of direction. As Jason Cowley writes in his review of an updated biography of the Prime Minister on page 42, the centre-right realignment promised by the coalition government has not happened. Rather than being rewarded, as they hoped, for their decision to enter government, the Liberal Democrats have been punished, nearly two-thirds of their 2010 voters defecting to other parties.

For a period, David Cam­eron, whose political views are an incoherent mixture of soft Thatcherism, shire Toryism and modish liberalism, sought to stand in the tradition of Disraeli and Macmillan as a One Nation Conservative, resurrecting the notion of noblesse oblige for an age of austerity. Vernon Bogdanor, Mr Cameron’s politics tutor at Oxford, says now of his former student: “He feels he has been fortunate; he has come from a fortunate background and feels he has a responsibility to look after those less fortunate than himself.” But Mr Cameron’s actions in government have defied this description. His party’s botched “reform” of the National Health Service (“the closest thing the English have to a religion”, in the words of the former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson) and his decision to remove the 50p income-tax rate have deprived Mr Cameron of any claim he had to be a One Nation Tory and have forced the abandonment of the slogan “We’re all in this together”.

Historically, one of the Conservative Party’s greatest strengths has been its ability to adapt pragmatically to change. It accepted the NHS, the welfare state, the Race Relations Act and, more recently, the minimum wage and devolution, even though it opposed them at the time. As Evelyn Waugh once complained, the Tory party has “never put the clock back by a single second”. Mr Cameron’s mistake was to betray this tradition through his chaotic reform of the NHS and his government’s error-strewn Budget. In his review of a new biography of Churchill on page 46, the former Conservative foreign secretary Douglas Hurd recalls Lord Salisbury’s advice that, since Conservative supporters largely accept the status quo, Tory ministers should “work at less speed and at a lower temperature than [their] opponents”. Would that Mr Cameron had done so.

The Conservatives are in retreat in those areas – the north, Wales and, definitively, in Scotland – that denied them a majority at the last election. Nearly seven years after Mr Cameron became its leader, the party has no councillors in Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield. It is Labour alone that can now claim to be the true one-nation party: the party of the British nation.

Unable to win a majority by conventional means, the Conservatives have resorted to rigging the system in their favour through proposed changes to constituency boundaries and voter registration. Yet even these measures are likely to prove insufficient. If Mr Cameron is to win a majority in 2015, he will need to do what no prime minister has done since 1974 and increase his party’s share of the vote. To do that, he will have to decide whether he is a One Nation pragmatist or a consensus-breaking radical. At the moment, he is neither.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Honey, I shrunk the Tories

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Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.