Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Right Wing Laager Is No Place For a National Party

With David Cameron gearing up for his speech to the Tories' Spring Conference today, the polling news from YouGov, that the Tories are a mere 2 points ahead of Labour, is causing severe jitters in the party. It is also creating an opportunity, according to the Independent on Sunday, for the right to become resurgent. David Cameron is under increasing pressure to adopt a tax-cutting, spending slashing policy regime that would appeal to the party's core voters. The pressure will only have been increased by the very successful launch of the British Tea Party movement by right-wing apologist Dan Hannan MEP.

David Cameron is a man of some mettle, and he has shown in the past that he has been prepared to resist the siren voices of the right-wing in his party. His reward has been to see himself vigorously lambasted by the rightist press - the Telegraph and the Spectator are amongst his severest critics - and on the conservative blogs. He should continue to resist. The Tories are not in trouble because they are not right-wing enough. They are in trouble because they have failed to spell out their distance from hobbling slash-and-burn economic policies strongly enough. They have allowed the internal debate to seep into the public sphere. They have failed to make bold, centrist policies count. David Cameron, and his key strategist Steve Hilton, were at their most successful when showing the country that the party was modernising.

It is the Tories' right-wing heritage that continues to hamper them. The legacy of its turn towards right-wing ideology in the 1980s was to remove their electoral presence from vast swathes of the country. Their almost total lack of representation in Scotland and Wales, their retreat from the cities and their evisceration in large areas of the north of England - especially the North East - were all the result of the polarisation of the Thatcherite polity. Only recently have they started to crawl slowly back into some of these areas, and that success has everything to do with the successful re-orienting of the Tory brand by David Cameron and Steve Hilton. That this might now be under threat from a resurgent right that sees re-election as its birthright, not that of the modernisers, is a dire problem for Mr. Cameron. Has he really managed to re-secure the party an electoral pact with so many disillusioned voters, only to see it snatched away again by the Thatcherite hard core who have never cared to see the party return to its once dominant centrist position?

Mr. Cameron apparently takes advice from William Hague. Hague is a natural right-winger, but as leader he saw his hopes dashed when he authorised an election campaign based on a core, ideological Tory message. The bitter reward of his leadership was to see his party endure one of its most catastrophic results after a term of New Labour. Michael Howard flirted with modernisation, but rode to electoral battle under the safe banner of right-wing values. I can remember even now the sheer disgust expressed by some former Tory voters for the unashamed Tory strategy of 2005. A centrist nation wants a centrist party of the right, but since the Thatcherite hijack of the party they haven't had it. Labour's current fightback has much to do with that residual problem of the Tories, and if - with a modernisers victory hanging temptingly in front of them - the Thatcherite wing once again manage to snatch defeat for the party this spring, they could well manage to consign a once genuinely national party to Trotsky's dustbin of history.

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