David Cameron’s crime was that he expected to win. Some would go further and say that from every pore he exuded a belief that he was entitled to win. Either way, beyond him winning, what has been the point of the Tory campaign? What real changes are on offer in return for swapping Labour centrists for Tory centrists?
Cameron spent most of the last parliament obliging Tories to support the Labour spending plans he claimed, by the end of it, had wrecked Britain. If this is change, it requires a different electorate to see it. It also requires an electorate that hadn’t come to the conclusion that the Labour/Tory duopoly deserved a monopoly of blame for the expenses scandal. Believing his own spin that he had “handled” expenses, Cameron has spent the general election campaign flailing from one panicked measure to another, reaching the nadir with his casual proposal to rip up the constitution and have, in effect, directly elected prime ministers. Others will tell you how it came to this. Let’s just consider what will likely come of it.
Mods and shockers
One thing Cameron’s failure will do is kill off the myth that being right-wing has lost the Tory party four elections in a row. Establishing this “fact” was a triumph for the Tory modernisers. Having it believed by anyone required an acceptance that John Major ran a furiously right-wing government; that William Hague, hemmed in by the shadow chancellor Michael Portillo and the shadow foreign secretary Francis Maude, was even more so; and that Michael Howard, far from being the man who patronised Cameron to the extent of having him write his manifesto, was a traditionalist whom other trads just couldn’t bring themselves to admit as such. Doubtless there are people who will always think that this was just so; but even they won’t be able to deny that Cameron ran as Cameron, and if he loses, an argument will therefore have been settled.
What happens next will also illustrate the difference between the Tory right and the Labour left, and also between the Tory right in internal opposition and the way Tory mods behaved out of power. Unlike too many socialist purists in Labour civil wars past, traditional Tories have wanted their party to win, even under a leader such as Cameron, who openly despised them. Indeed, it will be precisely his taking us to needless defeat that will be fatal. In victory, he would have been forgiven everything. In defeat he won’t be forgiven anything.
But just consider how the right has behaved since Cameron became leader: it has stayed quiet and it hasn’t caused trouble. William Hague has only to look across the shadow cabinet table to see some of the moderates who caused him the most torment when he was Tory leader.
One myth that has already fallen by the wayside was the comforting fable that leadership loyalists reached for during Cameron’s most un-Blair-like dips in the polls in years gone by: “If only David was on the telly more, then we’d get back to where we should be.” Cameron has never had more television exposure than the debates he idiotically pushed for, and after each one his support has fallen.
Another myth was that of Cool Hand Dave, the imperturbable leader, whose response to the crisis mounting inside Central Office since the New Year has been to abandon responsibility for taking key decisions to underlings such as Andy Coulson or Steve Hilton. And now, doing everything the mods preached against others doing – not least flip-flops and last-minute “new” policies unveiled during general election campaigns – Cameron confronts Labour and refuses to get close to 40 per cent.
Unless the parliamentary arithmetic absolutely obliges it, only Tory fantasists can seriously claim that the Liberals will choose us over Labour. Every policy Nick Clegg would wish to accomplish in office is more readily delivered by Labour, and every second spent in coalition with the Tories would be another vote subtracted from the 2010 Liberal pile and added to Labour’s for 2014.
What lessons can and should be learned? For a start, obsessions have no place in the programme of a party serious about power. One clear-cut example was elected police chiefs. Where was the polling that said the public wanted policemen replaced with politicians? Another area where polling was thrown to the wind was foreign policy. Whatever the case for an independent deterrent, talking about a war Britain doesn’t need to have with China is not the way to justify it.
Then there were the horrendous, unforgivable failures over education policy: the one area where Labour’s malevolent, anti-achievement incompetence should have gifted open goal after open goal. Instead it amounted to nothing for the party. Labour’s Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, is just about the most off-putting performer in the cabinet, but he has proved far from the serial liability he should have been. Our maddeningly incomplete policy on schools squandered the single best opportunity, after the economy, that we had. Whether it was an unsellable policy, or merely mis-sold, the lack of traction has been one of the most dismal defects of the entire Tory campaign.
At this point, I should be honest and say I never realised Clegg had it in him to change political history. I always thought he was a bit of a wet fish, whose Cameron-lite tendencies would leave the Lib Dems stranded.
But has Clegg truly been the decisive factor? Cameron has led the opposition that has opposed least in history. He was a fool to think the public would not pick up on this. Should Cameron contrive to lose the unlosable election on 6 May, no one can stop William Hague from becoming leader again. And this time, he won’t have to face a fifth column.
Christopher Montgomery ran A Better Choice, the campaign that stopped Michael Howard from disenfranchising grass-roots Tories in leadership elections.