My column for ConHome: The agony of the Tory modernisers

by Stephen Tall on December 4, 2013

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here yesterday. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke … constructively, I hope.

You’ll just have to take my word for it the next sentence is meant sincerely: I feel sorry for the Tory modernisers. Genuinely. The authentic modernisers, that is, the ones who wanted their party to appeal to a broad range of voters (not the ‘modernisers’ who simply wanted the party to hide its old, harsh face behind a new, A-lister’s happy-looking mask).

For a while the authentic modernisers were in the ascendant. It’s eight years ago this week that David Cameron was elected Conservative leader pledging to ‘mend our broken society’. He didn’t just hug huskies – the image that came to define for some the image-over-substance Cameroon agenda – he launched policy commissions that blended traditional Tory thinking (economic competitiveness, security at home and abroad) with fluffier concepts (social justice, quality of life).

And it worked. Sure, there was a wobble triggered by the short-lived ‘Brown bounce’ in summer 2007. But by the following year the Conservatives were regularly polling in the high 40%s. One Mori poll in September 2008 even put them on 52% of the vote.

But this polling bubble burst along with the housing bubble. When the extent of the ‘credit crunch’ became apparent, the Tories appeared to have few answers, and started to revert to type. George Osborne willingly took on the mantle of ‘Mr Nasty’: “I know it’s going to be very difficult if we win,” he told the Daily Mail, anticipating the austerity to come, “but, actually, I kind of relish it.”

Despite a series of campaign mis-steps the Tories staggered across the finishing line in 2010, with 37% of the vote. The new ‘liberal Conservative’ coalition offered the authentic modernisers fresh hope: their party now had no choice but to govern from the centre, tethered there by those pesky Lib Dems. Out went embarrassing manifesto promises such as the inheritance tax cuts for millionaires; in came a focus on tax-cuts for the low-paid courtesy of their Coalition partners.

The Tories could have embraced this accidental reality. Instead they began to resent it, while Lib Dems grimly accepted it. David Cameron could have supported the Alternative Vote – simultaneously reaching out to progressive voters while minimising the threat Ukip now pose to his chances of re-election – as Michael Gove wanted him to. But he and his party preferred the easy option of the status quo and kicking Nick Clegg.

The bruised Mr Clegg responded to the Tory onslaught in the only way possible: defensively, ever eager to prove to his party he was no pushover. From May 2011 on, the Coalition drifted apart, slowly but surely. It reached its nadir in the tit-for-tat that stymied two measures included in the Coalition Agreement to improve our democracy that should have been progressed on merit: Lords reform and the constituency boundary review.

Though the parties’ compact survived, it became solely transactional as they waited for the economy to improve. Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems realised they needed to hang together or else they would assuredly be hanged separately.

As a result, authentic Tory modernisation became tainted by association. To be a Cameroon was to be a Coalition-loving, Lib Dem-appeasing, election-losing girly-man. The balance of power within the Tory party shifted decisively to the right, dragging David Cameron along with it. Whoever succeeds him as leader, whenever that is, will do so by out-right-winging him. The Conservatives are living out their own 35% strategy.

Which brings us to Nick Boles and his moderniser’s cry of pain: “I underestimated the readiness of some in the Conservative Party, and the press, to play up to the caricature [of heartless extremists].” So concerned is Mr Boles by the re-toxification of the Tory brand he even proposed the revival of the ‘National Liberals’ to act as a kind of holding-bay for liberal Conservatives who may otherwise be too horrified by the prospect of joining his party.

He’s not alone. Matthew Parris issued a stark warning to Mr Cameron at the weekend: “He should remember that one of the things disliked by the Right is him. He is in danger of losing his friends on the progressive side of the party who may not be there for him when new allies on the Right betray him, as they will.”

He’s not alone either. The Prime Minister’s renouncement of ‘green crap’ – once so integral to his modernising message – triggered a confrontation with 25 of his usually most loyal MPs, unhappy at this latest U-turn. The Times reported: ‘“It got quite feisty, with some quite interesting interventions from people you don’t normally see stepping out of line,” one who was present said. “There were some MPs representing constituency interests saying that most of the jobs in their patch were green jobs and that his loose talk on the environment risked giving investors the jitters.”’

And not just investors: voters too. I’ve written here before about the Lib Dems’ 17.5% strategy, the optimistic end of the party’s share-of-the-vote forecast for 2015. To our steady-state 10%, my party hopes to persuade up to half of the 15% of the public who don’t currently support us but will consider voting for us: 5% of them are Conservative supporters. They are the liberal Conservatives who are in favour of the UK’s membership of the European Union — and who are also pro-green and believe the government has a vital role to play in boosting renewables.

Every time David Cameron tries to stick his finger in the dam to staunch the flow of little Englander Tories to Ukip, he risks opening up a new hole leaking progressive Conservatives to the Lib Dems.

So I can understand the Tory modernisers’ anguish. After all, they’ve been here before. John Major, William Hague, Michael Howard, David Cameron – all promised to win over new converts, all ended up preaching to the choir. And still no sign of the promised land: an outright majority.

We’re approaching the season of goodwill, so please – those authentic modernisers still left – accept my sympathies… Even as your choir joins in the familiar hymn, “O Come All Ye 35% Of The Faithful, Joyful But Not Triumphant.”