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If Tory MPs can’t decide what kind of party they want, they’ll have to work it out in opposition

Whatever the change, all Tories want it to be harder and faster. That is not something the Prime Minister can deliver in a coalition.

Tory MPs know that repetitive disloyalty and conspicuous party division hasten electoral defeat. Yet they cannot line up obediently behind David Cameron. The refusal by more than half of them to accept the Prime Minister’s moral lead on gay marriage cannot be explained away by his granting of a free vote in parliament. It expresses a more profound reluctance to be led.

It follows that some Conservatives either do not care if they lose the next election or are actively pursuing that outcome. That is less bonkers than it sounds. Coalition has deprived many Tories of any sense of ownership of the government’s programme (as well as suffocating their ministerial career prospects). As their first loyalty is to the idea of being Conservative and that creed is not, in their view, paid proper respect in Downing Street, they already feel themselves to be in opposition. The usual explanation for backbench anger starts with Cameron’s failure to deliver the election triumph that was advertised asthe party’s reward for swallowing sickly “modernising” medicine. Another way of looking at the Conservatives’ problems is not as an aftershock of defeat but as a failure to adapt to victory.

The lack of a majority has hardly limited Cameron’s ambition. The coalition has turned public services upside down while imposing the tightest budget squeeze in a generation. Labour is doubly confounded. The opposition lost the economic blame game in the opening months of the parliament. Only slowly are voters beginning to cite George Osborne’s policies over Gordon Brown’s legacy as the bigger cause of their pain. At a deeper level, the left is affronted that a crisis in capitalism has somehow generated a Conservative chancellor.

That dismay is an extension of Labour’s discomfort with its own record. There is near consensus in the party that Brown and Tony Blair were too deferential to Big Money. Their accommodation to Margaret Thatcher’s economic legacy is seen as an intellectual surrender. Ed Miliband has no appetite for pursuing the “Blairite” model of public-services reform, with its emphasis on markets and competition. So the coalition has snatched that baton and giddily run off with it: churning out academy schools; having GPs shop for private treatments on behalf of patients; outsourcing welfare-to-work schemes and prisoner rehabilitation.

Throw in Labour’s vague acceptance of the need for budget constraint and it seems as if all the big battles are being waged on Conservative terms. Miliband’s “one nation” alternative looks like rhetorical homoeopathy – balm that comforts only those people with a predisposition to believe.

If Conservative ideas have the run of West­minster, why does Cameron look like he is losing? The obvious answer is that the ideas aren’t working. The economy is stagnant. The subtleties of public-sector reform are lost in unsubtle cuts. Most people’s experience will be of fewer and worse services.

Downing Street is still confident that the economy is poised for recovery and that time is running out for Miliband to define himself as anything other than a whingeing spectator. Cameron’s problem is that Tory MPs are not minded to accept their leader’s invitations to wait patiently for fresh political winds to carry them to victory.

While the left sees Cameron’s ultra-Blairism as proof of ideological zeal, the right banks it as technocratic continuity from the old regime and urges more radicalism, with more aggressive assaults on Whitehall control. Labour regards Osborne’s austerity plan as dogmatic butchery but noisy Conservative dissenters say spending and borrowing are still out of control. They want deeper cuts and lower taxes. Cameron cannot acquiesce to that demand without abandoning all pretence of centre-hugging moderation, the defining ambition of his leadership.

There is something absurd in the complaint that the Prime Minister is inadequately Conservative when he is implementing so many Conservative ideas – market reforms, deregulation, shrinkage of the state – in impeccably Conservative fashion. But Cameron is not a natural thumper of ideological tubs. His Toryism is instinctive and uncodified. He struggles to proselytise for his beliefs because, taking them as part of the natural order, he has never interrogated them with much rigour. Cameron’s hope of remaining Prime Minister rests on the belief that British voters will endure austerity if it is sold to them by a charming, mild-mannered gentleman who insists politely that there is no alternative.

He stands for business as usual, only poorer than usual. It is not a cheery proposition but it may be the Tories’ best chance of clinging to power. Cameron imagines himself to be a visionary leader but in reality his appeal is to that stoical strain in British culture that takes what it is given, makes do, muddles through and apologises when its toes are trodden on.

Backbench Tory MPs are not so deferential. They want ideological insurgency, not managed decline. There is no agreement over what new direction the party should take – more liberty, or social reaction? Whatever the change, all want it to be harder and faster. That is not something the Prime Minister can deliver in a coalition. Besides, it is not his style. Cameron sold himself to his party and the country as the first 21st-century Conservative leader. In truth, he represents the ultimate valediction of 20th-century Conservatism – the candidate you might cook up in a laboratory with political grafts from Harold Macmillan’s patrician elitism, Margaret Thatcher’s economics and John Major’s nostalgic moralism.

If his party thinks that is a monstrous creation, it faces a huge task working out what it wants to be instead. It is the kind of work that can only be done in opposition. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide