Leader: The Tory modernisers cannot allow the dinosaurs to win

“The supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as ‘domination’ and as ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ . . . A social group can, and indeed must, already exercise ‘leadership’ before wining governmental power.” –Antonio Gramsci

After David Cameron won the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2005, in what was, in effect, a young MPs’ coup, he presented himself as a new kind of Tory: a “moderniser”whose mission it was fundamentally to change his party and, in so doing, return it to power. He and his fellow “Cameroons” – George Osborne, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt et al, as well as their media cheerleaders – were determined to remake the Tories as a progressive force, fiscally conservative, socially liberal, at ease in and with a multiracial, multicultural Britain.

The Conservatives would no longer be the self-described “nasty party”. They would not, as Mr Cameron put it, “keep banging on about Europe”. The party would be environmentally conscious and pursue a green agenda. It would speak a language of “compassionate conservatism”. Even more boldly, the Tories pledged to match the then Labour government’s spending plans, because they wanted to demonstrate that the National Health Service would be safe on their watch. This was, in broad outline, the modernisers’ project.

It was easy to caricature the Cameroons back then as a group of well-meaning but deluded Notting Hill “trustafarians”, whose wealth and privilege blinded them to the reality of how most people in Britain lived. However, few doubted that Mr Cameron was sincere in his desire to modernise the party: he understood that he had to exercise leadership (and risk growing unpopular with his natural supporters) before he could win power.

What has become of the modernisers’ project? In an essay on page 22, David Skelton, the acting head of the influential right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange (his predecessor, Neil O’Brien, has recently gone to work for George Osborne), outlines what the Tories have got wrong and what is required if they are to become, again, the natural party of government.

 The Conservatives have a northern problem. Comprehensively rejected by urban voters in the north of England, the party also has only one seat out of the 59 in Scotland. In addition, the majority of black and ethnic-minority Britons do not vote Conservative.

Mr Skelton writes that the Tories urgently need to address voters’ concerns about rising energy costs and about the housing shortage (the average age of a first-time buyer is 37). He recommends that planning laws should be reformed to enable housebuilding; that new garden cities should be built and that our rundown northern towns should be reimagined and regenerated. The Labour leadership would do well to read his essay carefully, because there is much in it that is good.

Yet the larger problems for the Conservatives are self-inflicted. The botched, Andrew Lansley-led reforms of the NHS, the cut in the top rate of income tax in the 2012 Budget at a time of austerity and the unfortunate stigmatisation of welfare recipients as “shirkers” have undone much of the early successes of the modernisers. They have reminded people why they stopped voting for the Conservatives in the first place.

A battle is taking place inside the Tory party between the modernisers and the dinosaurs on the back benches and in the shires and the media, who, if they had their way, would withdraw from the European Union, close the borders and attempt to build some kind of Randian low-tax utopia.

Yet there is hope for Mr Cameron. The Policy Exchange project for reform, or greater “modernisation”, as outlined in our cover story and elsewhere, has echoes of the civic conservatism of Michael Heseltine and, before him, of Harold Macmillan, who as housing minister in the early 1950s embarked on a vast programme of housebuilding.

The Prime Minister, in a recent interview, said that he wished to remain in Downing Street until at least 2020, serving a full term if re-elected. But unless his party dramatically improves its performance and appeal in Scotland and the north of England (as well as London) and Mr Cameron demonstrates that he can govern for and in the interests of the majority, he is destined to remain a one-term prime minister and to be remembered as the “moderniser” who failed.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers