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It’s business as usual for the Tories

The party may call themselves "progressive" but they remain unreconstructed on a host of issues

With considerable skill, David Cameron has emerged from his final annual conference before the general election without having changed the Conservative Party substantially in his four years as its leader. It is now clear that there is to be no feat to compare with Neil Kinnock's 1985 attack on the Militant Tendency; no equivalent to Tony Blair's abolition of Clause Four a decade later. Cameron has refused to take on his own party over any major issue and yet still appears poised to become prime minister in 2010.

Support for the Conservatives across the country, however, is shallow: their leader may be popular, but the party is not. It just happens not to be Labour. Indeed, on the eve of the conference in Manchester, it became belatedly fashionable for the Tory high command to start to admit that the election could still be lost. But the shadow ministers on parade did not always heed the pre-conference warnings against complacency. The assumption that they had already won was betrayed by the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, in his speech to conference on Tuesday, with its repeated references to a future Conservative government.

Perhaps Osborne should have paid attention to his party chairman, Eric Pickles, who reminded journalists that the Tories have a mountain to climb at the next election. They need to capture 117 seats on a 7.5 per swing. The former has not been done since 1931; the latter has been bettered only once since the Second World War - in the New Labour landslide of 1997. But the Tories continue to poll, on average, 10 points lower than Labour did in the run-up to the 1997 election.

Europhobic rank and file

The Conservatives may call themselves "progressive" - pointing to their newfound love for the NHS, the environment and even foreign aid - but they remain unreconstructed on a host of issues. Europe has once more become a preoccupation, not because (as with John Major) the leadership is more pro-European than the wider party, but because Cameron's brand of scepticism - which led to the Tories withdrawing from the mainstream, centre-right grouping in the European Parliament and committed them to a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty - indulged the Europhobic rank and file, but without going far enough for them. Cameron's failure to rule out a vote on the treaty, if - as is widely accepted - it has been ratified by the next election, illustrates his failure to take on the right of his party. A senior shadow cabinet minister admitted to me that the referendum "will not happen" - but a few hours earlier, the arch-Eurosceptic backbencher Bill Cash had told me most of his colleagues in the Commons would seek to hold Cameron to his promise.

The extraordinary presence in Manchester of the Polish MEP and new Conservative ally Michal Kaminski - whose anti-Semitic outbursts in the past have been well documented, despite Tory press officers' attempts to persuade senior Jewish figures to retract their criticisms - demonstrates how isolated this supposed government-in-waiting has become in, and on, Europe. "We are not the ones making a noise," said one of the few pro-European MPs at the conference. "That comes from the other side of the party."

It is in relation to the Tories' economic policy, however, that the word "progressive" becomes most redundant: as the cheering during Osborne's speech showed, this is a party that remains wedded to its first-term commitment of supporting the country's richest estates with a regressive inheritance-tax cut, while salivating over cuts to public expenditure. The Conservatives' new big idea, trailed before the conference, was to tackle the rise in benefit claimants with a harshness reminiscent of the Thatcher and Major years. Indeed, I am told that the former social security secretary Peter Lilley - who issued grim attacks on single mothers at conferences gone by - will return to cabinet should the Tories win, as will the former party leader Iain Duncan Smith.

Hologram of change

So what defines "progressive" politics for the party of Osborne, Lilley and IDS? One report in a Tory-supporting newspaper suggested that the extent to which the party had changed could be seen in the gay pride rally - "the biggest ever" - at this year's conference. That the party has become tolerant of homosexuality is admirable; but this is not the litmus test for progress. Where are the political and economic reforms, the plans to save jobs and tackle poverty? Where is the break with the Thatcherite consensus on the small state and tax cuts? Cameron can be lauded for many things: charm, presentation, articulacy. But he is not a progressive, nor has his party changed on the issues that really matter.

It is possible that the party did not require its own Clause Four moment; that the electorate has simply been wrong in backing Labour for the past decade and is finally returning to a Tory way of thinking. Certainly, it haunts Labour strategists that a majority in England voted for Michael Howard's Conservatives in 2005. But the likelihood is that most voters across the UK remain unconvinced by the Tories.

Labour - as the former Tory chancellor Norman Lamont conceded - could still win next year, but it has to convince voters that it remains the natural party of progress, as Cameron continues to present his hologram of "change" and "progressive conservatism" to the public and the press. If he does win, Cameron will have done his party, if not the country, a great service - by restoring its lethal appetite for power without relinquishing any of its core beliefs.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush