There’s a fashionable idea that Conservative wets are more electable and that it was right-wing rigidity that confined Conservatives to the political wilderness in the Blair years. Like many fashionable ideas, it is untrue. Not just that, in fact; it is the opposite of the truth.
Let us look at the facts, starting in the 1950s. Conservatives ended rationing, lessened price controls and brought state spending under control in the early ‘50s, and were rewarded with a far larger majority in 1955. Churchill’s ‘One Nation’ successors were rocked by sleaze, scandals and Suez, slowly squandering the goodwill engendered by prosperity, though that goodwill and Labour’s divisions would see them triumph in 1959. Douglas-Home inherited a crippled government from Macmillan, ‘becalmed in a sea of satire and scandal’ in Hurd’s words. With a credible, relatively moderate leader in Wilson, Labour promptly ousted the Conservatives in 1964, increasing their majority in 1966. The Tories only regained control with Heath running as a fiscally hawkish, reformist Selsdon Man in 1970.
In 1972 Heath’s U-turn saw him charging off to the left, leading to ballooning government spending and debt. This ‘occupying the centre ground’ did not help the Conservatives electorally – rather, it saw them trounced in short order. Heath’s successor, Margaret Thatcher, was an ardent fiscal conservative and foreign policy hawk. Against a Labour Party committed to higher taxes and higher spending, Thatcher triumphed convincingly. Unlike Heath, she did not charge off to the left halfway through her first term, while Labour did. While she brought spending down and liberalised the economy; Labour doubled down on nationalisation, higher taxes and ever more government spending. Labour proceeded to get thrashed twice more.
Under Major the Conservatives grew far wetter. While he’d already irresponsibly allowed spending to shoot up by 10% in 2 years before 1992, creating a then record deficit, Labour remained untrusted, and the Conservatives won again. Major then shunted up taxes, continued running substantial deficits and spending wastefully, and Labour reformed. The ERM, beloved of the wets, savaged Britain’s economy until it was forced out. By 1997 Labour were attacking the Conservatives for their profligacy! On other issues too, the Conservatives had given up the game – barely any light separated Major and Blair on the EU, Blair was if anything more hawkish on foreign policy, and New Labour was to be tough on crime too. A Labour that had successfully painted itself as fiscally responsible proceeded to win in a landslide.
Some would say that the next four elections prove Conservatives can’t be Conservative and win anymore, but they remain wrong. Labour began responsibly, even creating a surplus in 1998-99, and even when they began to change course they weren’t meaningfully challenged. In 2001 the Conservatives did pledge to reduce government spending as a share of GDP, but also to match Labour’s commitment to massive new spending on the NHS, and lost devastatingly once more for their efforts. Do note that while there was limited daylight on the EU, specifically whether to adopt the Euro, Labour’s commitment to only adopt the Euro with public consent greatly reduced its currency as an election issue.
Labour began to let itself go, spending rose and deficits ballooned, and did in fact suffer in the polls for it. By 2003, before the Iraq War, they were already consistently below 40% in the polls, after years where they’d sometimes hit 60%. The time was ripe for the Conservatives to hold Labour to account for its overspending, reclaiming fiscal responsibility and giving the electorate a meaningful choice. Instead the Conservatives ran on increasing spending by 4% every year, matching Labour on the NHS, foreign aid, schools and transport while spending more on the police, defence and pensions. They lost again.
In 2010 the Conservatives did better, although they still didn’t win outright until 2015, and the differences between these two elections is instructive. In 2010 the Labour government faced issues far beyond its 2005 weakness, the aftermath of the recession having discredited its remaining claims to fiscal responsibility. To Cameron’s credit he did at least manage to paint himself as more inclined to rein in spending. He ran a campaign that distracted from this with the blinkered acceptance of Labour’s narrative posed as ‘modernisation’ that amounted to abandoning or ignoring often popular Conservative principles, and with the commendable but poorly communicated ‘Big Society’. He failed to get a majority.
2015 was different. Labour’s otherwise effective attacks on the Conservatives for their failure to close the deficit were undermined by Labour’s commitment to be even slower about it. With UKIP ascendant off the back of socially conservative dissatisfaction with Cameron and Labour, there was every reason to believe the Conservatives would fall short regardless. This time, however, the Conservatives hammered home the divide on spending restraint relentlessly. They also made much more of an EU referendum pledge, something else the wets resented. This emphasis on Conservative Conservatism paid off, and despite losing around 6% of the vote to UKIP, the Conservative vote rose and the Conservatives won a majority.
Now Theresa May leads. Flagships of the Conservative right, from controlling immigration to bringing back grammar schools, have been reclaimed. May seems for now to be fiscally similar to her predecessor. Robust Euroscepticism is the order of the day. With Labour desperate to seem as irresponsible as it can, the contrast has rarely been clearer, and the Conservatives are soaring in the polls for it.
The reality is, then, that minimising the differences between the Conservatives and Labour as the wets desire loses elections. The Conservatives don’t own fiscal responsibility, and when they abandon it Labour wins; when Labour takes the fiscally responsible mantle, they win big. The wets, not the right, are what kept the Tories in the electoral wilderness in the Blair years, because the people want a choice, not an echo. Many right-wing ideas, on issues from immigration to grammar schools, command popular support, and abandoning them to satisfy left-wingers who will never vote Tory is futile. In other words, the Conservatives win when they are Conservative. Theresa May would do well to remember that.