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The people’s flag is deepest blue

If the party has a future, it's with ideas like “little-guy conservatism” - it has to change or die.

The Soviet-style banner proclaimed the movement’s aims: “Full employment, decent pensions for all, world-class schools and hospitals.” This, however, wasn’t a gathering of Unite or the RMT but a conference devoted to securing a Conservative majority at the next general election.

“Victory 2015” was the idea of Tim Montgomerie, the editor of the website ConservativeHome. The slogans, he explained, were an attempt to prove that the right had “ambitions” beyond cutting immigration, slashing the deficit and bashing Brussels. The Tory party, once the most formidable election-winning machine in Europe, had not, as he reminded his audience, won an overall majority in “more than 20 years”. It would change or it would die.

A poll published that morning had found that just 7 per cent of Conservative members believe their party can win the next election. Not one of the activists I spoke to was hopeful of victory. “The left is too modest. It’ll be a big win for Labour,” one told me.

His mood was not improved when the former Conservative deputy chairman Michael Ashcroft announced that he had conducted a new survey of 213 marginal seats. Like a physician grimly informing a patient that their illness has spread, Ashcroft paused before declaring that, were a general election held today, Labour would be swept to power with a majority of 84. Ninety-three Tory seats, including southern bellwethers such as Stevenage, Milton Keynes and Watford, would fall to the opposition.

Planning to win the next election, the military aficionado said, was “the equivalent of preparing the final assault on Berlin while evacuating the beaches at Dunkirk”.

Such dystopian visions make the party’s thoughts turn, once again, to regicide. The Tories desperately cling to the belief that a change of leader could save them. Theresa May, the unremarkable Home Secretary and keynote speaker for the day, is suddenly being spoken of as a replacement for David Cameron. “She could be our Angela Merkel,” whispered an activist. But, as Ashcroft’s polling suggests, the Conservative Party’s problem is not its leader. Cameron continues to outpoll both his party and the coalition and he leads Ed Miliband as the voters’ preferred prime minister.

A more accurate diagnosis is offered by those, like Montgomerie, who warn that the Tories are still viewed as the party of the rich.

The antidote to this malady goes by names such as “little-guy conservatism”; all are concerned with rebuilding support for the party among low and middle earners.

If the party has a future, this is it. Yet too many seem content to play the old tunes. The loudest cheers came when May confirmed she was considering allowing the UK to renounce the European Convention on Human Rights, a subject that leaves most voters unmoved. Montgomerie had pointed the way to victory, but the Tory Bennites were still marching down the road to defeat.

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem