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?”