Is There a Way Out of the Tories’ Modernising Mess?

David Cameron must calm backbenchers and win back the core voters he has recklessly offended, before reaching out to the centre ground

Features UK Politics
The plotters have him in their sights: A vote of no confidence must take place if 46 Tory MPs demand it. Can David Cameron survive?

Men have long met behind closed doors to decide who should be the leader of their great movement. Is there someone available who can appeal both to traditionalists and the supposed centre-ground of opinion? Should they opt for youth or experience? As these questions are debated, new alliances are forged, old friendships are betrayed, murky deals are done, until a winner emerges who can be paraded in front of the faithful. Cardinals do something similar when they are choosing a new Pope. But when it comes to intrigue and infighting the Conservative party can rival the Catholic Church.

Tories wonder if it will soon be time for them to pick their own new leader. The subject dominated a recent private dinner of the No Turning Back Group and other discussions when Conservative MPs meet to eat and plot. After all, for Tory leaders retirement before death is hardly unprecedented. Of David Cameron’s six predecessors, three have been brutally thrown out. To memorise the roll-call of slaughter an equivalent is required of the mantra learnt down the generations about the six poor wives of Henry VIII. That ran as follows: “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.” In the case of the Tories since the mid-1960s it has been Ted Heath (removed), Margaret Thatcher (removed), John Major (almost removed), William Hague (death by baseball cap), Iain Duncan Smith (removed) and Michael Howard (survived). Cameron survives, for now. 

In one sense, the recent speculation about the future of the Prime Minister’s leadership is mad. He starts with several significant advantages. Even though the Labour party has an opinion poll lead in the region of ten to 12 points, it is much smaller than might be expected at mid-term when the economy is flat-lining and the country is in a funk. The opposition knows this and is not particularly confident of victory, even though the coalition government is struggling. Then there is the Ed Miliband question. For all that I have long argued that he is both underestimated and steelier than he seems, Miliband is a very left-wing Labour leader who has not yet made the connection required with sufficient numbers of voters. This was apparent in the Eastleigh by-election. An opposition on the verge of government should have been able to make at least some impression and attract disgruntled voters, yet Labour did not. It came a miserable fourth.

As Cameron likes to point out, Miliband also remains dogged by basic questions on the economy. The answers the party has are transparently hare-brained and inadequate. Even if the government and Chancellor George Osborne are seen to be failing, Labour is going to struggle to convince voters that its plans are any better. Britain has been running enormous deficits for five years now, and almost a trillion has been added to the national debt. Will a touch more really be the match that magically relights the economy? For good reason, Labour frontbenchers look shifty when they are asked how much extra they would spend and borrow in government. They simply do not know.

Cameron is also lucky in that he has no obvious Tory rival for the top post either, at least not in Parliament. If Boris Johnson were on the backbenches, or could find a way of letting down the voters of London gently, then Cameron would have cause to worry. Boris is a rarity: a popular politician, a phenomenal performer and ideological chameleon to whom the normal rules do not seem to apply. Recently he has even managed to keep a straight face when issuing statements urging his fellow Tories to get behind their leader, surely relishing Cameron’s predicament. Boris is determined to become Prime Minister at some point and his supporters are determined to find him a way back into the Commons, although it is extremely difficult to see how it might be done in time for the next election. 

Despite the Prime Minister’s advantages, his supporters remain worried and with good cause. The anti-Cameron plotters are a hardcore group of only 25 or so Tory MPs, who spend their time trying to persuade discontented colleagues that something must be done. Although it is unlikely that if they strike they will be capable of removing the Prime Minister, they might do him lasting damage. Tory party rules provide for a vote of confidence in the leader if 46 MPs demand it. In such circumstances, it would rapidly become a test of authority. How many MPs would have to vote against Cameron before he was fatally weakened? The leadership is keen to close this down before it gets to a vote. While those in No 10 were declaring recently that all the leadership speculation was complete rubbish, they were concerned enough to launch a briefing war against the Home Secretary Theresa May and others deemed to be on manoeuvres.

The plotters are only one manifestation of deep unhappiness in the Tory tribe. This has been misunderstood in parts of the London-based commentariat, which thinks that because Cameron is a presentable young man with power, who has read Tony Blair’s memoirs, it disturbs the political continuum even to begin contemplating alternatives. As a Tory activist put it to me recently: why wouldn’t Cameron’s leadership be in trouble? It would be more astonishing if it were not. By the autumn he will have been leader of the Conservative party for eight years. He did not win the election against Labour’s Gordon Brown, entered a coalition which his acolytes declared to be superior to a majority Conservative government, and has chosen, recklessly, to offend hitherto core supporters of the Conservatives. There is the tax raid which involves funnelling two million more Britons into paying the higher 40p tax rate, combined with what is perceived as betrayals on pledges to deal meaningfully with inheritance tax and marriage. The introduction of gay marriage instead of tax breaks for married couples by the Prime Minister was just the last straw for some traditional Conservatives. 

Whether they want a change of leader or not MPs still have to return to their constituencies where, unless they are themselves particularly good recruiters, party membership is falling sharply. The number of Tory members across the country is declining so fast that it will soon fall below the 100,000 mark. This has consequences. Having fewer members and activists means it will be tougher to get councillors elected in May’s local elections. They are a party’s bedrock. Without sufficient councillors it becomes more difficult to put up a good fight at the next election. Take Eastleigh, which only a little more than two decades ago was a safe Conservative seat. When Chris Huhne stood down after being charged with perverting the course of justice, those turning up from Conservative Campaign Headquarters in London and other parts of the country found almost no local structure. They had to scramble together the basics of a campaign with a candidate who seemed ill-prepared for prime-time amid the media-driven madness of a British by-election. In contrast, the Lib Dems were well-dug-in local campaigners with 40 councillors compared to four Conservatives. In other parts of the country thought of as naturally Tory, this debacle is in danger of being repeated. The party machine is being hollowed out.

The rise of the UK Independence Party, once dismissed by the Tory modernisers as an utter irrelevance, has not helped. Not all those members who leave defect to UKIP, but MPs report that a sizeable number of once Tory voters have done so. UKIP and its ebullient leader Nigel Farage may be coasting a tidal wave of discontent with the conventional parties which will diminish as the next general election approaches. But even if UKIP’s popularity recedes, it has only to poll six to eight points in a general election to cause havoc. Conservative MPs with small majorities understand that an extra couple of thousand votes for Farage’s troops in their constituencies will split the vote and let another party through. 

Is the Tories’ UKIP predicament remotely fixable? It seems doubtful. The European dilemma looks unresolvable. The Prime Minister’s speech in January was a thoughtful, well-constructed attempt to build a position around which Conservatives of all persuasions might rally. Those who want to get out of the EU have their promise of a referendum if the Tories somehow win the election; those who want to renegotiate the terms of British membership of the EU are catered for and pro-Europeans will be able to campaign to stay in if it comes to a vote. This sensible compromise seems barely to have registered. Defecting voters either did not notice the Cameron shift on Europe, or if they did discounted it as another meaningless promise. Polling suggests anyway that many of those switching to UKIP have become unpersuadable. They are simply furious with the class running the nation’s affairs, and that includes some Conservatives looking for a way to rebel.

Some of the erstwhile Tory modernisers seem to understand the scale of the potential crisis. Discreet efforts are being made in Parliament to reach out to all but the most irreconcilable critics of the leadership, although others — such as Nick Boles — continue their crusade against Conservatives sceptical of the modernising project. Meanwhile, George Osborne wants — somehow — to get the Tory tribe to forget its differences and concentrate on a common enemy. It is a little late for that, even though the prospect in two years’ time is a Labour government, staffed by many of those who did so much to land Britain in the mire.

The Tories’ situation is a mess. The challenge facing British Conservatives is still the same as it was when a fresh-faced 38-year-old leadership contender paced the stage in Blackpool in early October 2005. That day David Cameron’s speech, delivered without notes or autocue, won him the party leadership election. Rereading it one is struck by how optimistic and inclusive — in the best sense of the word — it was. He seemed to want to marry more traditional Conservative themes on education and the economy with a modernised worldview. “We can be that new generation, changing our party to change our country,” he said. “It will be an incredible journey. I want you to come with me.”

“Incredible” is one word for what has happened since. Cameron’s tragedy — if he cannot produce a flash of magic or get lucky with a recovery few forecasters are predicting — is that in embarking on his “journey” he and the modernisers made a central strategic error. From it has flowed so much of their subsequent failure. Being desperate to emphasise their modernity, they forgot — or never understood — that successful conservative leaders always secure and lock in their “base” while simultaneously reaching out to convert other voters. That applied to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and John Howard. It would not have occurred to any of that trio to declare war on their supporters, in the vain hope that centre-ground voters would admire them for it. All three would have known that it would be electorally disastrous.

David Cameron was better placed than any Tory leader since Thatcher to resolve this inherent tension. As a sensibly sceptical shire Tory whose motives were trusted he might have persuaded traditionalists and modernisers to work together, and he still might. The challenge facing the Conservatives, whether they are led by Cameron or a successor, remains the same. To return to the metaphor of the conclave, the Tories need a leader who can build a church with a genuinely broad congregation.