12 June 2017

The Tories offered strength, but not sunshine


A dozen years ago, a young, still relatively unknown MP asked his party to follow him out of the wilderness. It would not be an easy journey, he warned, because “we’ve got to change our culture so we look, feel, think and behave like a completely new organisation”. The Conservative Party had to recognise that the old tunes wouldn’t work any longer. Britain had changed and so must the Tories.

“We’ll be tested – and challenged,” he allowed. “But we’ll never give up. We’ll never turn back.” It was time for a “new generation” and a new “modern, compassionate conservatism”. That – and only that – could save the Conservative Party.

In the aftermath of a truly terrible election – if paradoxically so, given that the party increased its share of the vote yet lost seats – is it too soon to say that David Cameron was right? And is it too late to ask if the party can still learn the lessons Cameron tried to teach it all those years ago?

Cameron’s years as prime minister were not entirely happy ones and his political career, of course, ended sub-optimally. Even so, for all his shortcomings and for all that his period in office delivered less than it once promised, his analysis of the essential position in which the Tory party found itself remains applicable today. He was right; his failure was that he did not insist on remaining right once his party returned to office.

Coalition could, perhaps even should, have been used to drive more, not less, internal reform. Instead the opportunity was missed – and worse, perhaps, abandoned without thinking sufficiently about what would come next. Short-term tactics prevailed over long-term strategy. Casting the Lib Dems as scapegoats, forever thwarting the Tory party’s ability to do as it wished, proved a tactical success, but only at the cost of missing an opportunity to truly command the centre ground for a generation. In retrospect, it looks like a terrible missed opportunity.

Last week’s election was many things, but one of those things was a revolt against more of the same. Brexit should have been understood as a revolt against this too, though this was not a lesson absorbed by Conservatives who misunderstood it as a rebellion against the EU rather than, as was actually the case, against the whole damn system itself.

People have had enough and Theresa May’s Tory party – so serious, so infused with a governess’s prim certainties – was incapable of remembering Cameron’s youthful suggestion to “let sunshine win the day”. That was before the crash, of course, but even in astringent times voters want something to look forward to. And that something should probably be something other than having to sell your parents’ house to pay for their dotage. If that hurt Tories in one demographic, the housing crisis deserved to hurt them in another, younger one.

Again, the Cameron of 2005 told his party that “we’ve got to recognise that we’re in third place amongst the under-35s, that we’ve lost support amongst women, that public servants no longer think we’re on their side”. Let’s just say those challenges remain.

Back when he was campaigning to lead the Tory party, Cameron insisted that “we have to change and modernise our culture and attitudes and identity. When I say change, I’m not talking about some slick rebranding exercise: what I’m talking about is fundamental change so that … we have a message that is relevant to people’s lives today, that shows we’re comfortable with modern Britain and that we believe our best days lie ahead”.

Some progress was made on this front; the Tory party looks a little more like the Britain is aspires to lead and gay marriage was a Conservative legislative triumph, even if it wasn’t supported by a majority of Conservative MPs.

But fatal weaknesses remained unaddressed, not the least of which is the not-entirely-inaccurate perception that the Conservative Party cares more for the rich than it does for those on modest incomes. Welfare reform was popular as a general concept, but the specific elements of welfare reform – from the bedroom tax to limiting child tax credits – too often confirmed voters’ worst fears about the Conservatives. Inequality may not have risen, but the aspirational working and lower-middle classes didn’t see where their fair shake or square deal was coming from.

Brexit didn’t help, either. Or, rather, the Tory party’s reaction to Brexit helped hurt it all over again.  Many Remain voters did not cast their votes as doe-eyed enthusiasts for the European ideal. Indeed, they accepted many of the Leave campaign’s criticisms of the EU – but, on balance, thought the benefits of Remaining preferable to the uncertainties of Leaving. They certainly did not see Brexit as a moment of national liberation. They looked at people celebrating Britain becoming a “free country” once again and thought, “Christ, what are you on?”

And then they discovered that, after a vote won by 52 per cent to 48 per cent, the headbangers were back in charge. Brexit did not exist on a spectrum; it was instead an all-or-nothing proposition. The harder the better, as far as the government was concerned. After all, you can’t have a Full English Brexit without Kippers.

You can accept that Brexit has to happen while thinking it unwise to, in effect, merge the Tory and Ukip views of Brexit. As though that were the only appropriate interpretation of what “Brexit means Brexit” actually means! (In the aftermath of this multi-loser election, the case for a cross-party panel of Brexit Commissioners to take part in the negotiations becomes increasingly attractive. This would divide the spoils, certainly, but it would also pool the risks. I don’t suppose it will happen, of course, but I fancy the public might wear it.)

Most of all, the Tory embrace of a hard Brexit did not seem a joyous affirmation that the country’s best days lay ahead of it. On the contrary, and especially if you are under 40, it more likely seemed a case of protesting too hard for fear of being found out. They didn’t consider themselves saboteurs and they didn’t much care for being crushed.

There are other hard truths to be accepted. Just as Tony Blair is the only Labour leader to have won a majority since 1974, so the Tory party has enjoyed two years as the majority party of government since 1997. This election might have seen a return to two-party politics in England but neither party is strong enough, nor enjoys a wide enough appeal, to win a convincing victory. In the medium term, this poses difficult questions for Labour and the Conservatives alike – even if Labour, blinded by Corbyn’s greater-than-expected success, does not yet realise it.

Just as the Conservatives need to do better in London, the North, and university towns, so Labour still needs to do better just about everywhere else. The combination of generational and attitudinal divides means that, as matters stand, only a leader possessing an exceptional cross-class, cross-generation, cross-postcode appeal can hope to win a commanding majority. It doesn’t look as though there is such a leader in any party right now.

In the absence of such a persuasive figure, elections will be won  – which is to say, lost least badly – by whichever side is best able to mobilise its core constituencies. This has always been an important component of success, of course, but it may now become the dominant feature of future British elections. That means more, not less, narrow-casting and, by extension, a further corrosion of the idea of an election as a great moment of coming together even as we express radically different preferences. I am not sure that is altogether healthy, either.

In 2005, Cameron said he wanted “people to feel good about being a Conservative again”. Here too he came close to succeeding, only to fail at the final reckoning. Still, his failure was as nothing compared to Theresa May’s. There are plenty of people who voted Conservative on Thursday with no great enthusiasm and who are, to one degree or another, tolerably pleased by an election outcome that has many more losers than it has winners.

Alex Massie is a political commentator