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Has Cameron realised that Tory government is not our default setting any more?

To do better next time, the Tories have to overcome formidable obstacles.

Measured in general election victories, the only successful Conservative leader from the past quarter of a century is John Major. It must be sobering for David Cameron to examine the conditions that last produced a Tory majority and be transported back to April 1992, a time when most British people had never held a mobile phone.

These days the Major administration is generally remembered for economic malaise and divisions over Europe that made the Tories look unfit for power. If the parallels with Cameron’s predicament aren’t obvious, Ed Miliband’s aides will gladly spell them out. The Prime Minister, they say, has also governed haplessly through recession and lost control of Brussels-bashers on his own benches. To reinforce the analogy, Miliband has sided with Tory rebels in parliamentary battle over the EU budget, reviving the tactical collaboration that tormented Major during the passage of the Maastricht Treaty 20 years ago.

Senior Tories prefer to dwell on an earlier chapter in the Major story – the squashing of Neil Kinnock. They interpret that result as proof of a British aversion to pious lefties bearing alarming economic manifestos. Downing Street thinks Miliband will trigger that allergy.

Risky business

Confidence that an opponent can be beaten doesn’t in itself make a winning plan. Gordon Brown was supremely beatable and he obstructed Cameron’s progress enough to produce a hung parliament. To do better next time, the Tories have to overcome formidable obstacles. Above all, they need the economy to look healthy enough that the idea of putting Labour in charge feels retrograde and risky.

After the economy, the two items that Conservative strategists say would make the biggest difference to their chances of a majority are redrawing parliamentary constituency boundaries to address a perceived pro-Labour slant and overcoming suspicion among ethnic minorities that the Tory party isn’t for them.

The first of those objectives looks far-fetched. Nick Clegg has sworn he will thwart boundary changes in retaliation for Tory obstruction of House of Lords reform. (Sensitivity to his reputation as a breaker of oaths makes the Liberal Democrat leader ever more determined to uphold this particular pledge.)

The second goal is only slightly less ambitious. Opinion polls show an irrefutable correlation between not being white and not voting Conservative. That holds even for second- and third-generation immigrants whose views might otherwise neatly align with Conservative policy. To address the problem, No 10 is taking advice from the Canadian Conservatives, a sister party that reversed a similar deficit in minority support through a concerted campaign of community engagement.

It is a long process demanding discipline and consistency from all candidates. There is always the hazard that a rogue racist outburst undoes months of conciliation.

An example of what such unhelpful incidents might look like is furnished in reports that Lynton Crosby, the Australian consultant newly appointed to run the Tories’ next election campaign, when managing Boris Johnson’s bid for the London mayoralty, rejected the idea of targeting “f***ing Muslims”. Crosby says he doesn’t remember the episode. His defenders point out that the campaign he ran for Johnson rejoiced in the capital’s multicultural credentials.

Crosby was also the architect of Michael Howard’s 2005 campaign, remembered in senior Tory circles as well-run but misguided. Blunt messages on crime, immigration and tax appeared alongside the slogan “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” The formula suggested some secret, more extreme agenda.

Those who still fret about rehabilitation of the Tory brand insist that Crosby’s appointment is no threat. “Lynton will do what he’s paid to do,” says one insider at Conservative campaign headquarters. “His job isn’t to write the message, his job is to deliver the message.”

Devising the election strategy remains the preserve of George Osborne. His great preoccupation, alongside boundary machinations and unbiddable minorities, is said by colleagues to be the UK Independence Party. Nigel Farage’s anti-Brussels junta is feasting on the votes of ex-Tories who despise Cameron for his dalliances with metropolitan liberalism as much as his occasional bouts of Euro-pragmatism.

Tory MPs used to see the Ukip vote as a midterm protest excursion by Conservatives whose underlying allegiance could be relied upon in general elections. Many now fear the fracture is permanent. It isn’t just Tories who are losing support to Ukip. Faragism, as a kind of organised, anti-Westminster dyspepsia, speaks to disillusionment across the spectrum. It is, however, uniquely challenging for Cameron and Osborne because of the way it interacts with the collapse of support for Nick Clegg on the left. In marginal Tory seats where Lib Dem refugees are switching to Labour, it doesn’t take many Conservatives to defect to Ukip for Miliband to chalk up a gain.

Last hurrah

The Tories’ fear of Ukip, their difficulty in reaching out to minorities and their resentment of the current parliamentary boundaries – which is partly displaced annoyance at the shortage of supporters in densely populated urban areas – are different expressions of one big demographic discomfort. It is the painful realisation that conservative Britain doesn’t automatically vote Conservative any more.

The Tories have a self-image as Britain’s natural party of power – a view made plausible by their dominance for sustained periods during the 20th century. The last hurrah for that soft cultural monopoly was April 1992. Affable and unpretentious, Major was able to rally a grand coalition of the cautious. If in doubt, his campaign seemed to say, stick with the Tories.

Cameron’s 2015 bid is shaping up to have pretty much the same message. Currying cosmopolitan favour alienates his party faithful, while pandering to grass-roots reaction sabotages his credentials as a moderate. That leaves only the assertion that Britain should vote Conservative because, well, in times of great uncertainty, that is the obvious thing to do. For people like Cameron and Osborne, it surely is. Yet there aren’t enough of them to deliver a majority. The Tories are not the default setting for British government any more. It isn’t clear the Prime Minister has noticed.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?