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25 March 2010

David Cameron’s Tories: the cracks begin to show

"Modernisers" break rank as polling day approaches.

By James Macintyre

Since David Cameron, and not Kenneth Clarke, became leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, I have felt that the reason Cameron is not certain to win the next election is that he is unwilling to make the fundamental policy changes that would involve a compromise with the electorate of the sort instigated by Neil Kinnock in Labour and continued by Tony Blair.

I first wrote about that for this outlet a week after joining the NS in 2008, under the headline “The façade cracks”. I have also consistently argued that tax should be the Tories’ “Clause Four moment”, but Cameron and George Osborne insist one is not necessary.

Years later, I am still dismayed by the extent to which Cameron is seen as a “moderniser”, given his positions on Europe, immigration, tax and much else. Yet it is interesting to note that suddenly, if belatedly, some who might be considered “progressive” Tories are expressing doubts.

First, Phillip Blond. I am baffled by him. He seems very nice and very clever, but his politics seem diametrically opposed to those of Cameron. With apologies to Blond, I would crudely sum up his politics as being socially and economically conservative, or — cruder still — socially right-wing and economically left-wing. Cameron’s politics on the other hand — and, contrary to critical wisdom, I do credit the Tory leader with having an “agenda” — are socially and economically liberal, or socially left-wing and economically right-wing.

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He is, for example, very relaxed about homosexuality, but also very relaxed about tax cuts for the very rich. His make-up is the logical continuation of Thatcherism, and was inspired by Michael Portillo’s programme in the 2001 leadership contest, in which his faction in the party stole the title “modernisers” from the Clarkeite Conservative left.

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Policy change writ large

The Portillistas translated “modernisation” to mean spray-paint alterations such as more female candidates — which Cameron repeatedly cites as evidence of “change” — but not bread-and-butter policy reforms.

So perhaps it was only a matter of time before Blond, a one-time “guru” to Cameron, wrote this, in Prospect, under the headline “Why Cameron shouldn’t lurch to the right”.

These are worrying times for Tories. Their poll lead has shrunk: from 17 points in December 2009, to 12 in January, and down to merely 2 in a March YouGov poll of 60 marginal seats. Even if other surveys point to a less tight picture, there has clearly been a dramatic breach in support.

A battle now rages over how to explain the fall, fought between the party’s progressive and regressive wings. Stuck between them, the Tory high command is bemused. They don’t know why this haemorrhage has happened, and so they don’t know what to do. Surely, against one of the weakest governments in modern history, they should be topping 50 per cent, not dropping below 40.

. . . [Last year], perhaps in a moment of overconfidence, a fateful decision was made: Tory strategists decided that instead of reverting to their former plan of action, they would instead choose to fight the coming election on the same economic grounds they once feared — using the rising tide of national debt as blue water to separate them from Labour.

It seems this new focus on debt was, in part, driven by the recently buried yet irresistible temptation of vestigial Thatcherite instincts: an economic “back to basics” campaign. And just as suddenly, against the background of improving economic conditions and Gordon Brown’s injunction to take a “long, hard look” at the Tories, voters paused and took stock. Even worse, the debt strategy began to undermine the positive elements of Cameron’s renewal. Out went optimism about the future, and concern for the struggles of ordinary people. In came Conservatives with scary talk of emergency budgets, and violent images of slashing spending. The result: a gradual re-toxification of a brand Cameron had painstakingly cleansed, and a retreat from his often visionary and transformative agenda.

. . . Oddly this recent fall caused by a return to Thatcherite orthodoxy has provoked loud demands for more of the same — as if intensifying the approach that lost support somehow holds the key to arresting the damage.

A typical response came from Tim Montgomerie, creator of the ConservativeHome website. In March he called for “more red-meat Toryism” and “less red Tory nonsense”, arguing for the need to “broaden rather than transform” the party. But this ignores the recent collapse of market orthodoxy, marks an inability to rethink the economic agenda and ultimately suggests the same core vote strategy that lost three elections, and would lose a fourth. In short, disastrous.

The most recent research from MORI shows the public already see the Tories as having the best policies on crime and asylum. So what is to be gained from talking about these issues more? Most important are credible economic policies; 39 per cent of voters say the economy is “very important” in deciding how they vote, twice as high as any other issue. The evidence is there in the very survey cited by Montgomerie: 44 per cent want restrictions on bankers, but only 22 per cent want cuts in spending. A March YouGov poll showed the pyrrhic success of Tory austerity: voters think they will raise taxes and cut public spending. With such a double whammy no wonder the electorate has second thoughts.

Broadening the party’s appeal cannot take place without transformation, and the creation of a new economic model for Britain, a point the shadow chancellor George Osborne has repeatedly made in recent months. Without this, Cameron risks repeating the historical failure of One-Nation Toryism [a concept with which Samantha Cameron is reported to be unfamiliar — JM]: not creating a political economy for the poor. Disraeli could have prevented state socialism if he had offered the working waged a stake in the economy. In the 1890s the Primrose League, formed to take forward Disraeli’s ideas, had more members than the unions. But then the Tories dropped the ball, and workers had no alternative but socialism.

. . . The fundamentalist ideologies of market and state are dead. Civil society is the future radical centre of British politics — the “big” society Cameron rightly extols. And the poor can’t be capitalists without capital. So the Tories must offer them a stake in the economy; a popular capitalism for all. And the Conservative manifesto is the place to start.

Well, quite.

Next, turn to Fiona Melville. She is a former aide to Cameron and worked on his 2005 leadership bid. On her blog, she writes:

To coin a phrase, we can’t go on like this. But we need to hear more from the Conservatives about where we will be if we take those tough decisions, and why it is worth choosing to change our government.

If the party’s left, such as it is, is only now beginning to wake up and realise that Cameron has not, in fact, shed old dogma and changed his party in any way other than superficially, then it may be too late. Cameron already claims to have taken his party on a “journey”, in the past tense. It looks like he has made up his mind: to enforce the minumum real change with the maximum perception of change.

If the Tories lose the election, his failure will not be that he was too “progressive”, but not enough.