House of cards
What might happen to the Conservative party if it is defeated in 2015, asks Hopi Sen
It is 22 years since the Conservative party won a majority in the House of Commons. If Ed Miliband wins the general election in 2015, he would extend this streak of electoral mishaps, making it a record of failure comparable only to the broken, divided Tory party of the Peelites and the Corn Laws.
For David Cameron there would at least be the consolation of having been prime minister at the head of a coalition government. For others in the Conservative party the coalition is a daily reminder of his failure to win alone.
That failure means that if a beaten Cameron sought to stay as party leader a flurry of letters of no confidence in his leadership would shortly follow. Tory advisers and commentators are near-certain that Cameron, ejected from Downing Street, would instead simply fold his tents. What would a defeated Conservative party do in the year 1 AD (After Dave)?
When a political party endures extended failure, it often emerges transformed. So it was for the Liberals at the turn of the 20th century, and for Labour after the 1930s and 1980s. The party that finally reclaimed power was substantially different to the party that had lost it.
Yet today’s Conservative party is largely the same party the voters threw out back in 1997. As Francis Maude wrote in his foreword to Modernisation 2.0, a recent manifesto published by the Tory moderate group Bright Blue: ‘I remain a fiscal conservative and an economic liberal; I’m realistically Eurosceptic and a defender of civil liberties and freedoms.’
He is right. Today’s economically liberal, free-market, low-tax, pro-business, anti-regulation, tough-on-immigration and tortured-over-Europe Tory party is extremely familiar. The truth is that Conservative modernisation was not a rejection of Thatcherism, but its continuation by other means.
To be fair, the social liberalism of the Tory modernisers has fundamentally changed their party. Yet it is hard to see where it goes next. When the Conservative party helped put gay marriage on the statute book, the socially liberal but economically dry reformists ran out of ways to prove they were no longer the nasty party.
So could the Conservatives finally change after defeat? The good news for the party is that it is possible to identify an alliance for a reformed Conservatism.
The next generation of ‘modernising’ Conservatives accept, in the words of David Skelton of the Tory pressure group Renewal, that ‘the more blue-collar and economic aspects of modernisation have made less progress’ than the attempt to shake off the ‘nasty party’ label by social reform. From this perspective, the challenge for the next generation of Conservatives is to replicate the successes of previous governments in helping working-class voters achieve their goals.
This is not a million miles away from the views of Tim Montgomerie, comment editor of the Times and former chief of staff to Iain Duncan Smith, and a man not known for his husky-hugging tendencies. Montgomerie argues that the early Cameron modernising project often focused on a narrow agenda of metropolitan liberalism, when the voters’ real hunger is for a greater focus on social justice issues. He sees the future of the party as being ‘a rightwing party with a heart’.
Yet the most immediate challenge the Tory party will face is unity, not renewal. Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, argues that ‘all the research suggests that the primary concern for a defeated party is a leader who can keep the party united’, even if this comes at the expense of immediate electoral appeal.
In opposition, the Tory party would soon find itself in a battle over Europe. Bale estimates that in a referendum on European Union membership 100 Tory MPs would back Britain leaving; Isabel Hardman, assistant editor of the Spectator, agrees that the number would be significant. A split of that scale would leave any Tory leader struggling to keep their party united. Even if Labour avoided a referendum on EU exit, the Conservatives would be forced to prioritise campaigns for a referendum, or risk a flight to the United Kingdom Independence party, obscuring their other strategic needs.
But the problem of unity among Conservatives extends well beyond the Tory party. Montgomerie points out that if Ukip secures enough votes to be the difference between victory or defeat in 2015, ‘there will be a renewed pressure to find ways to “unite the right”.’
While he sees this pressure as consistent with the need for a more blue-collar Conservatism, others fear that an emphasis on the concerns of the right will make it ever harder for the Tories to emphasise issues of personal prosperity and social justice.
This all feels very familiar. A new party leader, first seeking to make the Tories compassionate, but sucked into battles over Europe and immigration in order to protect their flank? That was the fate of both William Hague and Michael Howard.
Ironically, it might be this pressure to ‘unite the right’ which leads to the most divisive fighting within the Conservative party, as those who demand Toryism blue in tooth and claw struggle against centrists and progressives over the old terrain of Europe, immigration, taxes and the free market.
But who might be the leader to stop this struggle engulfing Conservatism? While there are bright young Tories ready for big promotions, from Liz Truss to Kwasi Kwarteng and Jane Ellison, 2015 will likely come too soon for them. Instead, it is from the ranks of those Tories who can claim to have been successful under the coalition that we should expect the Tory leader to emerge.
Home secretary Theresa May has signalled both an interest in leadership and an ideological flexibility, which allows, in the words of Montgomerie, ‘people across the party to project what they want onto her’. Hardman points out that May has a devoted network of supporters and allies already who could easily form the nucleus of a leadership campaign.
While his assaults on ‘trendy’ and ‘leftwing’ educational theories and teaching may appear to be a retreat to the right, they also suggest that Michael Gove, the education secretary, could appeal to Conservative traditionalists alongside his more natural base of reformers.
For a harder-edged alternative who could give voice to those who mourn a more traditional Conservatism, look to former defence secretary Liam Fox; work and pensions secretary Chris Grayling; or David Davis, who Cameron defeated for the Tory leadership in 2005. But, while each may seem an implausible leader, it is not hard to imagine the direction they would lead the Tory party in: one tough on crime, immigration and welfare spending, Eurosceptic, but supportive of better rewards for low-income workers, whether from tax cuts or higher wages.
Yet one figure in the Conservative party could do things very differently. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, presents a more heterodox alternative to his rivals. Polls suggest he is the most popular politician in Britain, and in his populism the battered remainders of progressive, pragmatic Toryism could find either their saviour, or their undertaker.
Johnson is not yet a member of parliament, but if he does go for selection before 2015, or persuades someone to step down after the general election, he could still be a candidate for leader. Even if he opts not to, the mayor of London will be a continuing source of instability for any new Tory leader, able to exploit any and all vulnerabilities in the leader’s position.
This means Johnson will continue to be the joker in the Tory pack, both destabilising and inspiring his party. For example, it is far easier to imagine a defeated Conservative party reassessing its opposition to electoral reform under Johnson than any other leader. He won the mayoralty under a proportional system, after all, and could argue a similar system would allow Tory MPs to scoop up the second preference of Ukip voters.
The same applies to economic policy. Johnson has, as mayor, been a champion of a creative Tory incoherence, resolutely on the side of wealth creators, but equally demanding more public spending, lower taxes and higher wages. This flexibility could give him the chance to transform the Conservative party in a way his rivals could only dream of. Or it could leave the party looking flighty, incoherent and untrustworthy.
Nonetheless, whoever emerges as Tory chief after a defeat in 2015 would face a huge set of problems. The Conservatives have not renewed in the way that regular electoral rejection suggests they must. They are still Margaret Thatcher’s party, five leaders after her departure. Ultimately, it comes down to this: Will the shock of defeat cause a fundamental Tory reassessment, or will they once again deal the electorate the same hand, and hope for a better outcome?
Hopi Sen is a contributing editor to Progress