Jack Wharton argues that the failure of the Tories’ Cameroon ‘modernisation’ project may be giving way to a pragmatic offering of wider appeal
In recent years, the Conservative Party has been of no fixed abode. Having embarked on a process of ‘modernisation’ in 2005, initiated by David Cameron upon his election as leader, the Tory party is changing once more. But fundamentally changing a political party is an exhausting process, usually carried out only once in a political generation. So what went wrong?
The inescapable fact of the past three years in government is that the Conservative Party may have ‘modernised,’ but that the timing could hardly have been worse. As the debt-fuelled boom years rolled on, the traditional Tory calls for a smaller state and sound money seemed too pessimistic in an age when the secret to ever-rising economic prosperity was seemingly known to Messrs Blair and Brown.
But we were late to the Third Way party: change was needed in 1997, not 2007. Instead, the Cameron and Osborne lead modernisation of the mid 2000’s pushed the Party towards the centre, just as the electorate and circumstances demanded a change.
Ask yourself: why is Cameron’s Conservative Party not the tour de force that Blair’s New Labour was in the late 1990’s? Because the model of party they tried to emulate had already run out of steam. As witnesses to the dark days in the twilight of John Major’s premiership, Cameron and Osborne matured on a diet of painful internal party vivisections post Labour’s 1997-landslide victory.
They say that generals are always fighting the last battle, rather than the current one. Well, as evidenced by the Cameron modernisation project, so are politicians.
Less than a year after George Osborne committed the Conservative Party to the then Labour government’s spending plans, it became apparent that Britain was in a colossal financial black hole. Having spent years in opposition bemoaning Labour’s waste, just as the chickens were, predictably, coming home to roost, the Tories changed their tune.
In opposition, David Cameron decided to hug a husky; this conference season, we witnessed his decision to shoot it. No more ‘Vote Blue, Go Green.’ The Conservative Party has slowly realised that committing itself to ludicrously expensive decarbonisation targets, just as real incomes were beginning to shrink, was an error of epic proportions.
But by deleting its online archive, combined with the outspoken comments by Nick Boles, a key figure in the first modernisation who, this week, expressed doubts over it’s success, the Tory Party has signalled it is ready to atone for the folly that was the Cameroon project.
George Osborne has changed his tune on deficit reduction. From the Chancellor who has continually delayed meaningful spending cuts, preferring to use tax rises to rein in borrowing, a promise at Party Conference that spending cuts alone would be used to plug the remaining black hole at the heart of Britain’s finances.
David Cameron has also made a significant contribution to his party’s changing rhetoric and policy on the economy. In a speech to the Lord Mayor’s banquet in the City last week, the Prime Minister backtracked from claims he was imposing cuts out of necessity, calling instead for permanently reduced state spending.
Meanwhile, the Tories’ claim to be on the side of ‘hardworking families’ appears to be more than just hot air. Although the LibDems may have initiated it, the Tories’ universal solution to any challenge faced by the electorate seems to be a tax cut.
Kelvin McKenzie recently said that, ‘if Lady Thatcher were around today, kicking the unions out of education would be a priority.’ Well if not that, what exactly is Michael Gove doing? In education, the current Tory Party is tackling vested interests and liberalising our schools in a more radical way than any before it.
When added to Nick Boles’ calls for the reformation of the National Liberal Party, a clear and positive sense of direction can be seen.
The Conservative Party may finally be finding the delicate balance between Thatcherism and Blairism – simultaneous economic and social liberalism. This is possible because the Conservative Party is a chameleon: and I’m not just talking about the clichéd ‘broad church’ analysis.
Far from being a collective of different ideologies, the Conservative Party is a grouping of pragmatic individuals, aligned upon a thematic rather than specific basis, at peace with itself, provided the theme is coherent and consistent, and perhaps most importantly, electorally popular.
It was perhaps to be expected, that after 13 years in opposition, the Party would be timid. But the Conservatives are now growing in confidence, the mask is slipping and the ideology is permeating, albeit from a low base. But there are still roadblocks and significant ones at that.
In order to transform themselves and the nation, the Tories must throw off the shackles of New Labour’s sterile political environment characterised by a neurotic obsession with inoffensive policies and discourse. Labour’s language of doublethink – an epistemology of fabrication – must be purged.
To coin a phrase, we must ‘get back to basics’ and build out.