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The third, probably most important dimension of long-term party decline is in the field of ideas. The failure to engage younger electors, especially in the universities, is nothing new. But it has reached crisis proportions. It will not be enough to offer short-term economic bribes to them. It is crucial to engage on an intellectual and moral level, to listen as well as lecture, to reach out. There is no magic way to do this. The existence of a small, vocal Bullingdon tendency in some university Conservative societies has been destructive. The rise of Conservative-oriented think-tanks also has been a mixed blessing. As Tim Montgomerie recently argued in the Guardian, think-tanks tend to be reliant on commercial sources of funding. They tend to commission studies and sponsor events designed to promote policies favourable to their interests. This applies to think-tanks of all political hues.

Ideas are not just fuzzy and insubstantial. It should not take a Gramsci to realise how vital they are. The debate on national sovereignty and negotiations about UK exit from the EU has come to be dominated by a highly vocal series of activists in leading universities, with the new Oxford Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson one of the loudest critics of the public verdict in the EU referendum. Major grants dispensed by the taxpayer through the research councils often reflect the prevailing moods and political orientations of academic bureaucrats. This, perhaps, is as it should be since the alternative — the manipulation of research on political grounds by the government of the day — would be worse.

A central party organisation cannot on its own change an entire climate of opinion. Nor would it be desirable were it able to do so. But political parties have legitimate, important roles in public debate. With his creation of a “Campaign Headquarters” David Cameron recognised that Parties exist to win power and that losing three general elections in a row — 1997, 2001, and 2005 — was an unacceptable state of affairs. The problem now, even more so than when Cameron won the party leadership, is that several tasks must be carried out at the same time.

In the months ahead, there are bound to be upheavals and crises. There are serious “known unknowns”: uncertainties stemming from Mrs May’s lack of an overall majority in the House of Commons, from internal divisions within the party over the terms of Brexit, from EU negotiators determined to punish and warn that abandoning the EU ship must have a heavy price, and from the House of Lords. Then come the “unknown unknowns”, not least international dangers.

Against this background, it would be understandable were the Prime Minister and her senior advisers to place the tasks of long-term party regeneration on the back burner. Yet this would be a huge error. It was immediately after Winston Churchill’s overwhelming defeat in the general election of 1945 that a leading businessman, Lord Woolton, became chairman of the battered Conservative Party. He was one of the most important influences on postwar politics. Since his work was either conducted behind the scenes or was too boring to attract notice, his role has usually been ignored. He restored the party’s finances and created a nest egg that was to help secure three election victories in 1951, 1955 and 1959. The large team of paid canvassers (“missioners”) scoured the country for new members. The Conservative Research Department was a valuable, highly regarded generator of ideas backed by an important party figure, R. A. Butler. In 1948, a grand home in Yorkshire was set up as Swinton Conservative College. Its closure in 1975 was a milestone in the process of party decline. By that time 54,000 people had participated in its courses.

Today, a major business leader, Sir Mick Davis, is at the helm at the Conservative Campaign Headquarters, though as chief executive rather than party chairman. Will he prove to be the new Lord Woolton?
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