The Conservative Party returned to form in the wake of the local election results. The always fragile veneer of unity, that has been cracking regularly pretty well since the last general election, took a few more seismic hits. Back out of their holes were the right-wing backbenchers and leader writers prescribing another dose of rightism, or “authentic conservatism” to use its current parlance, as a solution to the Tories’ electoral ills. Most laughable of all was the elevation of Boris Johnson – the one bright spot in the Tories’ election misery – as the champion of this authenticity. Yes indeed, the Gay Pride marcher, serial adulterer and bike fanatic is, apparently, just the man to return us to those stoical social values of old. Get thee behind us, evil modernising Dave Cameron and make way for Boris!
Well, Boris’s election victory as the triumph of personality over politics has been well commented on elsewhere – entertainingly by Jerry Hayes on Dale and Company, and perceptively and eloquently by Matthew D’Ancona in the Sunday Telegraph – so the lessons that the mayoral election don’t offer the party are not worth pressing on with any more here. What is worth looking at, though, if only because it offers us a perspective through which to understand the Tory problems, is the historic problem of Tory election performance.
Go back far enough, to the halcyon days of the 50s and 60s, and the Tory election graph always seemed to be a source of optimism. Often victorious, certainly nation-encompassing, its occasional blips almost always preparatory to a return to the fold. This remarkable trend seemed to be further enhanced after Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory, followed by two successive triumphs where she thumped the opposition. Even John Major, in 1992, carried the party through adverse polls to victory. So what has happened since and where did it start?
The reality is that the Tory election problem has been a long time coming, and can be traced back to the very point of its triumph, under Margaret Thatcher herself. What the Thatcher election victories disguised by their scale was the retreat of Toryism across too much of the UK. The gradual reduction to nothing of Tory representation in the northern cities and the celtic lands moved on apace under her stewardship, leaving the party as essentially the vehicle of the prosperous south and east of England. Perhaps this was the necessary price for the polarising policies of the eighties, policies which some would arguable were unavoidable if Britain’s decline was to be averted. But when the party was finally kicked out of government in 1997 many of its members – and certainly the majority of its MPs – refused to recognise the nature of the message being delivered by the electorate. Ordinary voters had had their fill of Thatcherism. The Conservative party, however, seemed to have barely got going as it embraced the Thatcherite agenda with even more fervour, turning its light towards Europe and social issues.
The reason for this misunderstanding was down to the way in which Mrs. Thatcher had been removed. The coup of 1990 was a rough and ready response to the poll tax problem and the arguably even more serious destabilising of her cabinet over Europe. After ten years in power, the leader herself was unable to provide any obvious solution to this twin-peaked volcano and was rudely removed, in a way suffered by no Tory leader before her. The wider electorate were deprived of their chance to deliver a final verdict on the leaderene while the Tory MPs and members could forever after claim – correctly – that she had never suffered an election defeat as leader.
Had Margaret Thatcher been allowed to continue the course of her leadership and take her party into the 1992 (or it might have been 1991) election, the Thatcherite bubble would have been punctured and the Conservatives might just have been able to embark on a proper period of reconstitution, untroubled by the poison of an improper coup. As it is, too many Conservatives continue to prescribe the wrong medicine at times of electoral vulnerability. David Cameron managed to get the party as far as he did in 2010 because he had understood the need to speak to a non-Thatcherite electorate. Some of that modernising strategy may have thrown up a few red herrings, notably gay marriage, but it remains emphatically the right approach for a party that still needs to prove it can connect to the electorate at large. It is not even clear that full blown austerity is either the right approach or the one that engenders the confidence of British people. Somewhere out there is a careful balance of state cutting without economic pinching that may still be what we are seeking for as people try and keep their businesses alive and their spending power stretching.
Until the Conservative Party truly gets over its Thatcher moment, it will never really start to make the real return it should be seeking to becoming a national party once again. The Thatcherite agenda is not some sort of holy writ version of ‘authentic conservatism’. It was a controversial panacea for its time (drawn as much from nostrums of classical liberalism as anything else) which found its place in a pragmatic party of broader principles. It’s time to embrace the 21st. century.