Here Lie the Remains of Tory Modernisation

Cameron has failed to detoxify the party and Conservatives are panicking before the reckoning that awaits them in 2015

Features UK Politics
On yer bike: Modernisers like Steve Hilton have long since fled No 10

The Conservative Party has generally avoided becoming hung up on bad ideas, either about itself or the country. There have, though, been exceptions. Imperial preference, in the 1920s and ’30s, and European integration, in the 1960s and ’70s, are examples of bad ideas that were highly influential. The first is entirely forgotten. As for the second, a few Europhile voices can still be heard in the upper, older reaches of the Conservative Party, but the European idea today looks not just stale, but absurd.

It is now possible to pronounce the last rites over a further, still more recent, bad idea. For Tory modernisation, too, is definitively dead. It is no longer a project: it is a curiosity. One of the initiators, Matthew d’Ancona, former editor of the Spectator, has written that “the shelving of the modernisation campaign was the Tories’ worst strategic error since the poll tax”. Few in Conservative circles would agree with that judgment; but Mr d’Ancona is right that modernisation has been well and truly “shelved”.

The reason is simple. The Conservative Party is in one of its panics, and no one quite does panic like the Tories. The party leadership fears losing office and the MPs fear losing their seats. In such conditions, they throw out anything that weighs them down. The gunwales are already low in the water, and modernisation has been pumped out of the bilges.

Unfortunately, parties cannot be so easily shot of their egregious mistakes. Simply doing the precise opposite of what the leadership has been urging for as long as people can remember looks ridiculous, and the Conservatives look ridiculous now. The obvious instance is Europe. It was a central part of the Tory modernisers’ thesis that Conservatives had become obsessed with Europe — continually “banging on” about it, as David Cameron complained in his first conference speech as leader. “Banging on” hardly now begins to describe the belligerent drumbeats pulsing from Conservative headquarters. Not a day goes by without Mr Cameron striving to appease Eurosceptic opinion in his party with some half-baked, improbable, transparently tactical initiative. Similarly, immigration was another of those vulgar topics that the modernisers were determined to downplay. Negative attitudes were, they claimed, at the root of the Conservative Party’s “toxic” image which made it unelectable. The latest Queen’s Speech is, of course, all about immigration control. The modernisers also said that Tories should speak about the poor, not seem to pander to the rich. Nowadays, curbing abuse of benefits is central to the government’s political strategy. That once-fastidious moderniser, George Osborne, has even linked welfare to the crimes of a convicted child killer. But the most unlikely transformation is of Theresa May, who has changed from sea-green moderniser to eye-popping populist. Mrs May, it will be recalled, delivered the most damaging speech ever made by a Tory party chairman when in 2002 she described Conservatives as “unchanged, unrepentant, just plain unattractive” and christened her audience “the nasty party”. The reinvented May is now threatening to abandon the European Convention on Human Rights, berating pussy-footing officials and chastising the judiciary in a rhetorical war with illegals, terrorists and assorted softies.

A simple test will do. Can we imagine how David Cameron, or George Osborne, or Theresa May, would react if an older-generation Tory, like Michael Howard, say, were doing what they are now doing? They would protest that such “toxic” policies were at fault for the party’s abysmal ratings in the polls.

The modernising heroes have fled the field. D’Ancona is Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. Blue-sky thinker Steve Hilton has retired to California. Chief pollster Andrew Cooper has gone off to make money. Instead, Lynton Crosby, a political strategist whose every instinct is at odds with modernisation, has been recalled to save the government’s bacon.

It might be objected that this is the sort of thing each new generation of politicians does: it criticises its predecessors, and then it follows in their footsteps. But these Tory modernisers cannot get off so lightly. They did not just claim to bring new policies. They claimed to stand for a different kind of politics. In any case, they could have actually done some good. Not all of their analysis was astray. They recognised that the party had to change. But they misread what was wrong and they mishandled the activists.

The Conservative Party was clearly narrowly-based and unrepresentative. But that was the effect, not the cause of the problem. By the last days of Major, the party no longer represented success, so successful people kept away. And so it looked like a rump — because it was indeed a rump. Rumps are not usually attractive. But the modernisers only made things worse when they kicked the remaining rump as hard and as often as they could.

They were right to want more women and members of ethnic minorities in winnable seats. But they got sidetracked by political correctness. They should also have wanted to see more successful businessmen and experienced professionals. But they were obsessed with youth, novelty and the opinions of the BBC. Candidate selection was soon corrupted and discredited by cronyism. The damage to relations between the centre and the local parties proved irreparable.

The background to the Tory modernisation project was, of course, the shattering defeat of 1997. For the previous two years — in an atmosphere reminiscent of today — the Tory party had raged and revolted. When the election results came in, Conservatives also lost their collective senses. And into this mad maelstrom the modernisers plunged. Their rolling coup experienced setbacks, but it eventually prevailed. First, they gathered around Michael Portillo. Then after his withdrawal, successively supporting and later destroying William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, they shrewdly used Michael Howard to promote one of their own, in the pliable form of David Cameron. Politics is a brutal game. But for sustained personal unpleasantness the Conservative modernisers deserve some kind of award. In private and in print, their long campaign was carried on in a tone of consistently venomous contempt. One can debate whether they then constituted a “movement” (as some of them called themselves) or a faction (as they have now become). In truth, there were always several distinct strands.

One strand, prominent in the early phase, constituted neo-Thatcherites. These were social liberals who, unlike Margaret Thatcher herself, saw the Thatcher project as one of pure liberalism and, more closely reflecting J.S. Mill’s conceptions, wished to see the removal of social as well as economic constraints. This group’s agenda focused on sexual liberation, where they have largely been successful, and on a permissive policy towards drugs, where — so far, at least — they have failed. 

More important, however, were a group of former adherents of the Labour Party and the SDP. They had never supported the Thatcher government. They had quickly given up on Major. And they were now completely smitten by Tony Blair. They had an egalitarian rather than classically liberal outlook, but they were not tempted by even the revamped Labour Party, and they sought, instead, to apply Blairism to the Conservative Party, whose carcass they now colonised and, in due course, controlled. The assumption they made was that the real problem of the Conservative Party was, in a word, its conservatism — that is the propensity to resist change, not just within the party but within society. This, in turn, gave modernisation a revolutionary timbre. Its advocates talked in millenarian tones about the dreadful future unless “change” was embraced. Conservatism must be discarded by the Tories, just as socialism was discarded by Labour, as a condition for winning. And conservatism regarding the fundamental institutions of society, including marriage, should equally be purged from the system.

There was an unusual overlap between this essentially leftish group and another — the up-and-coming professionals within the Conservative Party, mainly reared within the Conservative Research Department. Some had become government advisers, but the advice they gave was usually on presentation, not on the substance of policy, in which they had little interest. (This has proved a problem since.) They, too, thought that the party’s image had to change, though their instincts and backgrounds were on the Centre-Right. David Cameron, George Osborne, and a number of key ministers and current advisers hailed from this group.

The final element in the mix was the party’s own establishment. This might, at first blush, seem surprising. Why should the old movers and shakers of the Conservative Party embrace a message of change? Was it not a reproach to all they had done and been? It was, but it didn’t matter. The residue of Major’s colleagues, most of the financial backers, would-be peers, and the reliable bevy of tame journalists who over the years have shown a touching or arguably shameless fidelity to whomsoever was in charge — these simply wanted to be once more close to power.

The formation of a Coalition government, back in 2010, at first seemed a tribute to the foresightedness of the Tory modernisers. Prominent exponents of the project, like Francis Maude and Oliver Letwin, had always hankered after links with the Liberal Democrats. Coalition particularly appealed to David Cameron, because Liberal Democrat votes offered a buffer against the Tory Party’s unreconstructed Right, who could be rendered impotent and then gradually shunted out of the Commons. But it has not worked out.

The public justification for the Coalition was the need to avoid economic collapse. The Coalition parties were given a doctor’s mandate. But their own skewed priorities meant they were incapable of applying it. The modernisers had always believed that Conservatives in the Thatcher era were too preoccupied with economics. (Cameron himself said as much before becoming leader and still believed it even after the financial crisis hit.) Modernisers thought that the economy would run itself, or at least mend itself, and that they could concentrate on softer, more appealing issues, like health and the environment. So despite the facade, the Tories, in truth, entered the Coalition with no sense of urgency about cutting public spending. It is now too late. The deficit is still swollen, debt is rapidly increasing, taxes are high, and growth remains absent or anaemic. There will be no economic gains by 2015 to claim victory at the election. The strategy has failed.

There is worse. For some modernising policy commitments linger on, because no one knows how to reverse them. Each will drive a nail into the Conservative coffin. The obsession with alternative energy will push up household energy bills, madden country dwellers, and disadvantage industry. Increasing overseas aid, while eviscerating defence, will give the right-wing press a field day. Above all, the legislation to redefine marriage, encapsulating the profound contempt which the party leadership has for the values of its supporters, will inflict bitterness up to the next election and beyond.

If 2013 looks remarkably like 1995, when it comes to the panic reading, there is reason to think that 2015 may look like 1997 when the votes are finally counted. Of course, nothing in politics is certain. But defeat clearly beckons. It will be traumatic. Yet a resurgence of collective madness afterwards can be avoided, if common sense breaks out beforehand.

The reckoning can begin now. The modernisers have not detoxified the Tory brand. They have simply made it unrecognisable, even to Tories. Before refashioning its image, the party will need to re-find itself. It must re-create its membership, which has collapsed. It must establish a working relationship with UKIP, those “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, who are now, in truth, the Tory Party in exile. All this will take time. A political party cannot charge down its eccentrically chosen route, trampling opposition, belittling critics, insulting supporters, only to find itself in a cul-de-sac, and not expect to be bruised by them when it finally doubles back.