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Leader: Too many Tories are standing athwart history yelling, “Stop!”

The government is now hostage to an unrepresentative band of right-wingers.

After his election as Conservative Party leader in 2005, David Cameron promised to create a party at ease with the forces shaping modern Britain. It would be one more concerned with improving living standards and public services than with “repatriating” powers from Brussels; one with an environmental conscience, committed to addressing the existential threat of climate change and one that believed marriage “means something whether you are a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and another man”.

For reasons of both politics and policy Mr Cameron’s “modernising” project was the right one but the events of the past month have confirmed its end. Having been warned by their leader that they needed to stop “banging on about Europe” if they were ever again to win a majority, the Conservatives began to speak of little else following the 2 May county council elections and the surge by the UK Independence Party (Ukip).

Although Mr Cameron promised in January to hold a public vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union by the end of 2017, his MPs variously demanded a “mandate referendum” or an “enabling bill” to enshrine his pledge in law, seemingly unaware that the more time they spend discussing Europe, the less chance they have of winning the general election that will precede any vote. As pollsters testify, the issue is not even among voters’ top ten concerns. The Prime Minister’s eventual decision to publish a draft EU referendum bill, having consistently refused to do so since his speech in January, was an admission that he had lost and that his party’s Euro-obsessives were winning.

This high farce was followed by the return of the gay marriage bill, which, rather than demonstrating how much Mr Cameron’s party has embraced liberalism, served as a reminder of how much it has not. Once again, more Conser - vative MPs voted against the measure than in favour of it and the debate in the Commons was marked by references to an “aggressive homosexual community” and comparisons of same-sex marriages to incest. Forced to rely on Labour and the Liberal Democrats to secure the bill’s passage, Mr Cameron was unable to take credit for a policy that the last Labour government lacked the courage to put forward during its 13 years in office. Too many Tory MPs have exemplified William F Buckley’s definition of a conservative as “a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling, ‘Stop!’”

Mr Cameron does not deserve all or even most of the blame for his party’s reactionary tendencies; not even Cicero could persuade the Tory backwoodsmen to embrace equal marriage. Yet he has consistently failed to challenge the myths that his MPs cite to justify their atavism.

The first myth is that the best response to the surge in support for Ukip, which has achieved ratings above 20 per cent in recent polls, is to adopt ever more hardline stances on Europe, immigration and welfare. Were this the case, the Conservatives would already be winning back Tory defectors from Nigel Farage’s populist party. That they are not is evidence that the main drivers of Ukip’s popularity are far more complex and long-term than the hardliners’ analysis suggests.

The rise in support for Ukip is a howl of rage against a diminished political establishment that appears incapable of solving Britain’s economic problems: the lack of adequately paid jobs; stagnant or falling real wages; the shortfall in affordable housing; the continuing absence of growth from many regions outside London and the south-east. Hostility towards the EU and immigration is often a proxy for these concerns.

Rather than mounting a doomed attempt to outflank the Faragists, the Tories should focus relentlessly on addressing these issues. The “blue-collar” modernisers in the party, such as Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow, have recognised as much, but their emphasis on improving living standards has been swept away by the latest wave of Europhobia.

The second myth is that the party’s failure to win a majority in 2010 was due to an excess, rather than a dearth of modernisation. As polling by Michael Ashcroft has shown, the Tories fell short because voters feared it had changed too little, not too much. A majority of voters continued to doubt whether the Tories could govern in the interests of low- and middle-income earners as well as the wealthy, and whether they could protect public services at a time of austerity. The government’s subsequent decision to cut the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p and to introduce an arrogant and botched NHS reorganisation for which it had no mandate only confirmed the validity of these suspicions. Mr Cameron should not forget that in 2010 most voters supported parties that rejected his commitment to impose early spending cuts.

That the Conservative Party appears willing to do all it can to lose the next general election is not of concern to progressives. But that the government is now hostage to an unrepresentative band of right-wingers most certainly is. Enduring the slowest economic recovery in more than a century, Britain needs competent and responsible administration. If Mr Cameron is unwilling or unable to provide it, he should consider whether the time has come to ask the voters, as one of his Conservative predecessors did, “Who governs Britain?”

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.