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Reviewed: Tory Modernisation 2.0 ed. Ryan Shorthouse & Guy Stagg

Homesick Blues.

Tory Modernisation 2.0: the Future of the Conservative Party
Edited by Ryan Shorthouse and Guy Stagg
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Today, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith sit together in cabinet. Rewind a decade, however, and it was all very different. Back in 2003, Gove wasn’t yet an MP but a crusading columnist, arguing, with other Tory modernisers, that the party had to drag itself into the 21st century on social issues and get over its fixation with Thatcherism.

IDS, on the other hand, was the Tories’ embattled leader, who had flirted with compassionate conservatism before reverting to type and trumpeting, in what would turn out to be his last conference speech as leader, the so-called “Tebbit trinity” of Europe, immigration and taxes.

By then, the sharks – including Gove – were beginning to circle. Calling on Duncan Smith to step down, he borrowed a few lines from Rudyard Kipling: “The Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,/And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire.”

Within weeks, IDS was gone, replaced by Michael Howard, who promptly surprised everyone by briefly appearing to have undergone a conversion to a modernising agenda that, by that time, was best articulated by Policy Exchange – the ginger group-cumthink tank fronted by Gove and two other current ministers, Nicholas Boles and Francis Maude. Howard’s heart, however, wasn’t really in it and, by the 2005 election, his pitch, honed by the Australian strategist Lynton Crosby and a young MP called David Cameron, was as Thatcherite and as populist as ever.

Only after the ensuing defeat did Cameron put his considerable talents at the service of the modernisers. And only after he won the leadership in December 2005 did the party commit itself to “change to win”. Except that it didn’t – not quite, anyway. For the most part, Cameron worked around rather than faced down internal opposition. Worse still, in May 2010, he failed to persuade voters to grant him an outright majority.

That failure still forms a fault line through today’s Conservative Party. According to many activists and MPs, Cameron missed an open goal by not offering the country a clear enough (that is, Thatcherite) alternative. Instead, he had diluted their message with his support for “progressive” social causes that had little or no resonance outside Notting Hill. At the same time, by offering guarantees to ring-fence spending on big-ticket items such as the NHS and retirement benefits, he had, in effect, denied his government the freedom both to make much-needed savings and to complete the free-market revolution.

Others – including most of the contributors to this slim but thought-provoking volume – see things very differently. As Matthew d’Ancona argues, it was too little rather than too much modernisation that did for the Tories in 2010. According to this analysis, Cameron, spooked by the financial crisis, hit the brakes too early and, by defaulting to orthodoxy before the electorate was sufficiently reassured as to his good intentions, ensured that the Conservatives weren’t yet trusted enough to assume office without a deal with the Liberal Democrats.

As a result, argues d’Ancona (who is currently writing an eagerly awaited book on the coalition), the Tories are in far more trouble than they – particularly those on the Thatch - erite and populist right – realise. If, instead of moving quickly to jump-start the stalled modernisation process, they fall back into the tribal and doctrinal thinking and rhetoric of the 1980s, then the reforms that they (and, for the most part, he) regards as necessary – reducing the deficit, freeing up education, making work rather than welfare pay, rebooting the NHS – will be too easily misrepresented by their opponents. It will also, as the acting director of Policy Exchange, David Skelton, notes in picking up on extensive opinion research, strand them further than ever from the ethnic-minority, urban, working- class and northern voters they need to convince if they are to win healthy majorities in the future.

D’Ancona and most of his fellow contributors assume or at least hope that what is popularly understood as One-Nation Conservatism – an “open-minded and bighearted” creed “rooted in pragmatism, not in idealism”, to quote the book’s editors – remains a strong and viable strain in the 21stcentury Tory party. To read David Willetts’s essay, which stresses the centre right’s recognition of both “wings” (freedom and aspiration) and “roots” (tradition and community), this is not so hard to believe. Yet, back in the real world, one suspects that Willetts, while in good company here, may be in a smaller minority among his parliamentary colleagues than he would have us believe.

This is not to suggest that he or the rest of the contributors are living in cloud cuckoo land. Indeed, many of them make admirable efforts to ensure that their political and social analyses and the policy prescriptions that they come up with are rooted in empirical research. And while they are happy to engage in some (bright) blue-sky thinking, by no means all of it strikes one as utterly incapable of solving some of the tangible and persistent problems that impinge on the lives of the many ordinary people who remain unconvinced that the Tories have much to offer them.

Doing the latter, all the authors seem to agree, is central to “Modernisation 2.0”. Where version one was often (although never exclusively) about persuading educated and often liberal middle-class voters that the Tories were no longer “the nasty party”, version two, they insist, has to focus on the more fundamental concerns of what James O’Shaughnessy, director of policy at No 10 between 2010 and 2011, calls “the people we need to vote for us” – those living somewhere “between the suburbs and the council blocks”, “younger families who ‘work hard and do the right thing’ but often wonder why they bother” and who desperately need to be given “positive reasons to vote Conservative”.

For O’Shaughnessy, these would include a huge expansion in house-building, achieved by the kind of deregulation that scares some Tories rigid, as well as a switch from providing services in kind to cash lump sums and even a James Purnell-style job-guarantee scheme for the long-term unemployed.

Other iconoclastic ideas include capping energy bills and commuting costs (Skelton), more integrated budgeting and payment-byresults (Jonty Olliff-Cooper), loans-based early-years provision, for-profit state schools and more creative financing of postgraduate education (Ryan Shorthouse), truly taking younger people’s lack of political participation seriously (Guy Stagg), likewise loneliness (Graeme Archer), genuinely opening up (and divorcing) trade and aid (Fiona Melville) and getting real about renewables (Ben Caldecott).

Even if some of those ideas are a little less centrist or at least a little more ideological than some of their proponents seem to realise, this is a worthwhile exercise. Governments, after all, can become so preoccupied with day-to-day firefighting and with delivering the manifesto on which they fought the last election that they can easily run out of ideas for the next one. This book aims to help by providing what Willetts calls “midflight refuelling”.

Whether the Tories are able to take much of it on board is another matter. At the moment they seem far too focused on Europe, on hitting their fabled immigration target, on setting “strivers” against “skivers” and on what some of its members regard as a running battle with the teaching profession. If this isn’t wobbling back to the fire, then I don’t know what is.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of “The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron” (Polity Press, £14.99)

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.  The second edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, was published in September 2016 by Polity Press.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap