If you’re a One Nation Tory who believed David Cameron was committed to leading the party from the centre then you have cause to be thoroughly disappointed with his first reshuffle. If you’re a One Nation Tory who is a little long in the tooth you might even have vague memories of an earlier party leader who briefly adopted the modernising mantle before ratcheting himself back into the right-wing hinterland. It didn’t do William Hague much good, and I fear it won’t do David Cameron much good either.
The electoral reality that the Tory Party consistently refuses to acknowledge is that it will never win election as an unadulterated right-wing party. After Margaret Thatcher’s extraordinary win in 1979, gained in the face of a brutalistic display of over-mighty union power, the Conservatives have been haemorrhaging support. The Conservative share of the vote has fallen in every election since 1979. The Thatcher wins in 1983 and 1987 disguised the retreat from the Tories that was already in existence, the lady herself famously benefiting from a disastrously extreme Labour party which in turn split the opposition. What was not so easily disguised was the increasing antipathy felt by large swathes of the electorate towards the Conservatives, as they espoused the classical liberal economic medicine that Thatcher had brought to the party.
Cameron’s election performance in 2010 therefore needs to be seen in the light of this gradual Tory decline. He didn’t win outright, but he brought the party nearer to victory than it could have dared hope for after the previous thirteen years of dearth. And he managed it by emphasising a Tory moderation, based in part on traditional One Nation values that reject the selfish individualism of classical liberalism and prefer to emphasise the collective responsibilities of everyone in society. Cameron’s Big Society may have been poorly articulated, but it sprang from the same roots, while his commitment to the NHS and to ‘green’ policies were classically Tory in inspiration. Cameron and his inner circle had correctly diagnosed the Conservative malaise, sought to correct it in part, and saw an electoral benefit that had eluded four previous leaders. Even the coalition with the Liberal Democrats could be seen as part of the narrative of taming the Tory right, building a centrist governing majority and returning the Conservative Party to its lost position as a natural party of government.
The problem for Cameron is that his own party never bought into the analysis. Not only are most of his grassroots members unforgiving in their classical liberal outlook, but the majority of his MPs represent an electorally fatal mix of die-hard authoritarians and hard nosed individualists. No One Nation brand will survive there. And so it has proved.
After delivering a bloody nose to Cameron’s coalition hopes with their rejection of House of Lords reform, and maintaining an ever more prominent critique of the Cameron project through sympathetic media outlets, the right-wing majority in the Conservative parliamentary party has now achieved its desired control of the government. It has been ceded to them by David Cameron’s reshuffle. It is as if the modernisation project never existed. There are no promotions for the small band of One Nation Tories, while good, earthy, die-hard Toryism has been sated with the arrival of Chris Grayling at Justice and Owen Paterson at Environment. David Davis’ former campaign chief, Andrew Mitchell, becomes chief whip and the Tories’ most notable moderate has been firmly side-lined. Jeremy Hunt’s arrival at Health – a surely undeserved promotion for someone who so badly mishandled one of the key elements of his previous brief – will give no comfort to those who thought Cameron meant it when he said the NHS was a key part of his political make-up. Hunt co-authored a book that described the NHS as a “60 year mistake”, openly questioned why Danny Boyle put the NHS at the centre of his British celebration that opened the Olympics, and even signed an early day motion promoting homeopathic medicine in 2007. Oh dear. The man who thought it was ok to chummy up to Murdoch whilst deciding on that gentleman’s take-over bid has much the same level of judgement on health issues. A bizarre promotion certainly.
David Cameron has abandoned government to his backbench banshees in order to drown out the sound of their wailing. It won’t even buy him much peace on the backbenches – wailing is what they do best. It certainly won’t bring him any more electoral success. Whichever Tories have temporary smiles on their faces today as a result of the reshuffle, the biggest smile of all must surely be on the face of Ed Milliband.