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What is the point of the modern Conservative party?

4 March 2013

3:16 PM

4 March 2013

3:16 PM

Who are the Conservatives? No, really, who are they and what do they stand for? Once upon a time – as James Kirkup points out in a typically astute post – we had a pretty decent idea about David Cameron. He was young. Polished. Presentable.  Dutiful. Unthreatening. Fiscally-conservative-but-socially-liberal. Modern (whatever, as Prince Charles might say, that means). Above all, he was neither Michael Howard nor Gordon Brown.

Ah well. That was all a long time ago. Let sunshine win the day is the soundtrack to another era. Such are the trials of government. Time – and power – tarnish everything.

What does David Cameron believe in now? He remains more popular than his party but sometimes you have to think that’s a pretty feeble standard for success. A form of grade inflation, if you will. (And the backbenchers are restless now.)

Perhaps I’m mistaken but it seems to me that Cameron’s recent manoevers have hurt his own reputation while doing nothing to advance his party’s prospects. There’s a lot of scurrying about but little sign of any firm strategy.

Consider the leaflet pictured above (plundered from Fiona Melville). This was distributed to voters in the dying days of the Eastleigh by-election campaign. Consider the message it sends: vote for the Tory candidate because she’s endorsed by a politician from a rival party for which you would not yourself often vote. Brilliant! Worse still: vote for Maria Hutchings because she appeals to people whom the Prime Minister himself has previously called “fruitcakes” and “closet racists”. Who thought of that?

Now perhaps this was just a last, desperate, ploy in the final days of a disastrous by-election campaign. But it also shows how the Tories have allowed themselves to be spooked by the UKIP phantom. They have become so obsessed with protecting their right flank they’ve forgotten that overloading their defences on the right leaves them exposed elsewhere.

Despite what some people might have you believe I can assure you that the general public does not in fact consider this a left-wing government. This Conservative government is actually perceived as being pretty right-wing. The people may be wrong but that’s what they think.

And why wouldn’t they? The Tories have been very good at telling the country what they don’t like but rather less good at telling us what they do like. There is a negativity about the government these days that is rotting its ability to tell a good story. We know what the Tories are against but not what they are for.

They’re against foreign judges, foreign workers and foreign students. They’re against people on benefits or in receipt of tax credits and they’re against “free” university education. Worst of all, perhaps, they’re against taxing millionaires and remain blind to the damage cutting the top rate of tax for the very richest Britons has done them. Then, though a little unfairly, they’re seen as being against gay people’s desire to marry each other and, more generally, they’re seen as being against (or at least uncomfortable with) much of modern British life. Some of this is the result of unfair (and often hostile) media exaggeration but not all of it.

Individually, these positions may have some merit; collectively they risk making the Tories seem a party for sour and angry people who rather resent the country they live in.

The headline polling figures are pretty grim for the Tories but they’re less important than some of the horrors lurking beneath the surface. One recent poll found Tory support amongst women had slumped to just 26 per cent. Just as importantly, only 31 per cent of respondents reckoned Cameron “cares about people like me“. As recently as 2010 that figure was 42 per cent.

Of course a stagnant economy helps explain much of this. Nevertheless, the Conservatives have not helped themselves. Perhaps gay marriage really is a ‘distraction’ from the ‘bread-and-butter’ issues about which people care. But if so it may also be that Europe is also a distraction. It matters enormously to a smallish number of people but is still, in the end, a minority passion. Vehemence should not be confused with salience.

And yet the Tory party appears convulsed by the European Court of Human Rights. (A place where, incidentally, the British government lost just ten cases last year.) In any case, they’ll need a Conservative majority in 2015 to leave the ECHR. What price that?

If there is any relief to any of this it is that Ed Miliband has not defined himself either. I still fancy that Miliband is a tree from which the bark may be stripped in a general election campaign but the Labour leader’s own weakness and his struggle to refresh the Labour party is still a shoogly peg upon which to hang Tory election strategy.

And yet, despite all this, the government has some good stories to tell. Recent setbacks notwithstanding, there’s a good story to be told about education reform. The same is true of employment growth and even, if the framing is done properly, of welfare reform. But we don’t hear very much of these things and nor do we hear much talk of what the government is actually doing. Instead the party bangs on and on and on about what it is against but only rarely about what it is for.

You could, often, be forgiven for thinking that Britain must be a pretty dismal, desperate place these days. You expect the opposition to make that suggestion; it’s not a good idea for the government to talk in that fashion too. Some optimism right now would be no bad thing.

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