A party divided against itself cannot stand. In these uncertain times, David Cameron and Ed Miliband cleave to such traditional wisdom. Both men have signalled to their backbenchers that the moment for debate has passed and that they are to act as campaigners rather than as commentators in the months ahead.
Their edicts have so far been heeded. With the exception of the enjoyably intemperate feud between Jim Murphy and Diane Abbott over Labour’s proposed “mansion tax”, MPs have fought their opponents, not each other. But the truces are uneasy. Instead of resolving the arguments, Cameron and Miliband have postponed them.
The achievement of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair was to remake the Conservatives and Labour in their own image. Neither Cameron nor Miliband can be said to have done so. Both are closer to being the servants than the masters of their parties. In the probable absence of a parliamentary majority after the general election, both will struggle to maintain the authority they possess.
When Cameron won the Conservative leadership in 2005, he did so under the banner “Change to win”. The message was crafted to appeal to those Tory MPs who resented his modernising rhetoric but who craved victory after three defeats. The deal, however, was only partly fulfilled: as a result of Cameron’s failure to achieve a majority, he was denied a mandate for reform. During the inquest that followed, he encouraged, rather than challenged, the myth that the Tories fell short because they were insufficiently “tough” on immigration, welfare and Europe. The resultant Conservative prospectus is of a more traditional shade than Cameron’s outriders ever anticipated.
Having once ordered his party to stop “banging on about Europe”, the Prime Minister has indulged it by promising an in/out referendum on the EU and exaggerating the perniciousness of Brussels. The man who once described the NHS as his political priority has excluded it from the Tories’ six main election themes. His early fondness for environmental sustainability and “general well-being” has given way to a crude celebration of unbalanced growth.
Emblems of modernisation – equal marriage, the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target – endure but they do so as liberal baubles rather than as elements of a greater whole. The Tories’ disciplined campaign machine, monomaniacally devoted to exterminating Miliband and extolling the party’s “long-term economic plan”, may yet prove strong enough to overpower Labour. Yet not even the Prime Minister’s greatest admirers pretend that this amounts to an intellectual route map for the future of conservatism. Cameron’s ideological gymnastics mean that the struggle for the party’s soul – whether it is closer in spirit to New Labour or to Ukip – has been suspended, to be resolved under a future leader. As a pre-crash and post-crash politician, Cameron has straddled both eras without defining either.
In contrast to his adversary, Miliband has maintained his intellectual consistency. Against the expectations of those who believed that he would default to Blairite orthodoxy the moment that support for Labour wilted, he has stood by his programme of market intervention. Yet after more than four years as leader, he has not left the imprint on the party that many of his early supporters had hoped for.
Labour retains a distinctive right in the form of the Blairite group Progress and a distinctive left in the form of its trade union wing. But the social-democratic politics embodied by Miliband has not acquired institutional definition. For fear of rupturing party unity after his narrow leadership victory, the Labour leader avoided the faction-building that Thatcher and Blair pursued. This, as his allies concede, is a matter of regret. The absence of an identifiably Milibandite group means that at moments of weakness he often appears dangerously isolated, a king without a praetorian guard.
The Labour leader has argued, with justification, “We have moved on from New Labour. And we are not going back to Old Labour.” Yet Miliband’s project remains one without a comparable identity. Should Labour narrowly win, the danger is that he will be a bystander in the debate that follows as left and right join battle over whether the party’s problem is a dearth of radicalism or a surfeit. Should Labour lose, many will conclude that his error was to seek to be both “radical and credible”, rather than siding unambiguously with either.
Having spent the first half of the parliament opposing most of the coalition’s spending cuts, the party has now resolved to keep all but the most noxious. The risk is that it has been left in a fiscal no-man’s-land. Against this, one MP contends: “If Progress think you’re too profligate and Unite that you’re too austere, you’re probably in the right place.” Miliband may struggle to maintain this studied equidistance in office as the cuts turn from a political abstraction into an economic reality. To govern is to choose – and circumstances may force him to do so. The prophecies of a “bloodbath” in 2010 had an unexpectedly unifying effect on Labour as MPs recoiled from a fate that was all too clear. In government, where the stakes are higher, Miliband may not be so fortunate.
Cameron would face an even greater test of party management in the form of the promised EU referendum, an event that Labour MPs believe would have such a disruptive effect on the Conservatives that they are inclined to forget it would only follow a defeat for them.
Neither Cameron nor Miliband has succeeded in building up the reserves of strength required to guarantee their survival. Unlike their hegemonic predecessors, neither can declare: “Le parti, c’est moi”. For this reason, they should cherish the unity induced by the election. It would not likely survive contact with office.