As George Osborne announced huge cuts to benefits for the mentally ill and the disabled, Andrew Mitchell clung embarrassingly to power before resigning, and Iain Duncan Smith courted controversy with proposals to slash benefits for families of more than two children, we witnessed the Conservative Party unleash its pre-general election rallying cries. And yet, as party direction sharpened, giants of the Tory “one nation” tradition rose to remind us of an alternative Conservative vision. George Young arrived honourably back into cabinet, while Chris Patten brushed Maria Miller’s criticism of the BBC aside as ably as he once swept voters into his party’s fold. This week, Michael Heseltine went so far as to suggest that there is economic and civic potential in the regions and that it should be backed by a decentralised state entrepreneurialism. Are we witnessing a renewal of the Tory left or its last hurrah?
George Young, for example, was once Conservative minister for inner cities and, for 23 years, the MP for the ethnically diverse urban seat of Ealing Acton. He once served in the cabinet of Lambeth Council. A Heseltine ally, in government he had a powerful sense of the need for policy to address poverty as much as unleash economic growth. His generation of Tories was as familiar with the great conurbations of our country as the modern Conservative Party has become unfamiliar with them. Indeed, among this cohort of parliamentarians was Virginia Bottomley who, as a qualified social worker, is the last Conservative frontbencher to have had a professional career in the caring or voluntary sectors. A Conservative government with social workers on its frontbench now seems utterly alien from the occasional summertime volunteering that passes as “a commitment to social action” for the party’s present parliamentary selection process. Like Young, Heseltine and Patten, Bottomley is a supporter of the moderate Tory Reform Group, the classic one nation ginger group.
But in the wider ministerial ranks, only Foreign Office minister Alastair Burt stands trenchantly in the tradition from which Young, Bottomley, Patten and Heseltine emerged. Among younger Tories, perhaps only Swindon’s high church Robert Buckland MP and Richard Chalk, a former party CEO and sometime head of Ken Clarke’s leadership campaign, come close.
Meanwhile, the very English “one nation” idea that state power can be used to back growth and build social inclusion is simply “Gaullist” according to Osborne devotee and FT journalist Janan Ganesh, “paternalistic” to some ministers and, in the view of the BBC’s Nick Robinson, “not acceptable” to “Thatcher’s children”, who now hold sway under Cameron. But “small tent” parties struggle to collect voters who have seen their neighbours break as factories close and community health provision evaporates. The centralising zeal of Duncan Smith’s apostles provokes mirth among elected councillors of even his own party. There is hardly a Conservative local government leader that does not think they could get youngsters back into work faster than any scheme invented by the DWP or BIS in London. Tacking away to the right, Duncan Smith, Osborne and those like them , leave open huge swathes of popular opinion in marginal seats that are not affiliated to any party but instinctively sense that more could be done, even at a time of fiscal rectitude, as things get tough.
For while Young, Heseltine and Patten remind us of a Conservative Party that was strong in the cities, in Scotland, among the rich and the poor they have lived an average of more than 70 years each. Despite their recent prominence, the fragments of their convictions are now unravelling as a new generation of Conservatives steps forward beyond Cameron. While this sharpens the Conservative strategy in the run up to the next election, it perhaps explains why even the Prime Minister is now under so much pressure from within. And why a young Labour leader has been so easily able to park his political tanks all over the lawns of the Tory one nation tradition. This is not, then, a moment of renewal for the Tory left. It is in crisis, and no one in its own party cares.
Francis Davis served as a policy advisor at the Department for Communities and Local Government under both Labour and the coalition government. He is a fellow at ResPublica and previously taught at Oxford and Cambridge.