For a very long time, I was sure the Tories would pull through and win the next election. They still very well might – but only because Labour is so breathtakingly, catastrophically poor. Even a mediocre Labour Party would be expecting to pick up 1,500 local seats on Thursday and win the EU elections by a canter given how poor the Tories have been of late.
I figured, back in 2017, that whatever May brought back to the house in the form of a withdrawal agreement from the EU, the Conservative party would almost wholly back. Maybe there would be some grumbling and a handful of holdouts. That was considering that back then I didn’t even think May would return with something as “good” as she managed to get (good in this sense meaning Brexity, which is not usually how I would define good, obviously). Instead, the Tories have trounced her deal, repeatedly. And her reputation. And very possibly Brexit and the Conservative party along the way.
The Tories used to put power above all else. That was the cliche about them, if you can still remember that far back. Now, they are known for having MPs who until recently were ministers saying things to the media like “Well, you know, I’m Brexit Hardman Steve Baker”. It’s quite the comedown in a very short period of time.
One symptom – or could it be a cause? – of the malaise that infects the Tory party is the denigration of Cameron inside of the party itself. Sure, Labour people were always going to trash his legacy, and any liberal minded Remainers might also justifiably have a bone to pick with Dave. But again, Tories were always good at putting ex-leaders on a pedestal. Even the not so great ones. It was about telling a story that went like this: the Conservatives fix the country and then rule it with an even hand; Labour pick idiots and/or psychos who even Labourites eventually see through. All of the Tory leaders, whatever faults they had, did the best job that could be done for the country, goes this narrative.
Whatever you can say about it, Labour turning the man who won them the largest majority ever and three elections in a row into what they now declare as the greatest monster that ever roamed these isles is par for the course; it’s just what the Labour Party does whenever it loses power. It goes with the religious nature of the Labour movement – whomever gets into government is never going to be pure enough. It would even happen to Corbyn if he got into Number 10.
Which, madly, he might do now that the Tories have decided to emulate one of the Labour party’s worst traits. Cameron is now spoken about in Tory circles as one of their worst ever leaders. There are many things about this that make no sense from a Conservative perspective – I’ll just stick here to the most glaring. One, he got the party into government after three colossal failures on the trot, even if it was in coalition, a coalition he managed to make hang together for five years. Two, he then won a general election, the only one the Tories have managed in the last six attempts. Three, he was the only Tory leader in any sort of recent memory who was widely popular with the country. Yes, I know, this has all been air-brushed out of history, but Cameron, while he was PM, was generally popular. And by popular I mean, his approval rating ranged from around +3 to about -8 for most of his premiership (it went south in 2016, in the run-up to the referendum). Not brilliant in a Platonic sense, but compared to the current leaders of both main parties, that is phenomenal. May’s popularity rating is currently -34 nationwide; with Tory members, it is an incredible -73. Corbyn has a -65 approval rating in Scotland (and a -27 approval rating amongst Labour voters in Scotland). Having an approval rating of 0, meaning as many people in the country think you’re doing as well as not doing so, now seems like something from a bygone era. Yet Cameron was only PM three years ago.
Four, Cameron gave them the stupid referendum in the first place, so the Brexiteers should love the chap. Yet, they clearly do not. Major is bad too because he isn’t Brexity. That has become the yardstick for everything Tory now, how Brexity you are. This is after a general election in 2017 in which they tried to be the Brexit party – and lost their majority. It doesn’t work for them, it’s been tested.
Having said that, the Tories have put themselves in such a terrible bind it’s tricky to see what they could do now as an alternative. They will never be more Brexity than the Brexit party for the simple reason being, the Tories need to govern the country in the actual real universe as opposed to some wooly fantasy space where English people are required to do nothing but sup real ale and play cricket on the village green all day long. The Brexit party can get away with being vague and promising everything to everyone – it’s like the Leave campaign ad infinitum. The Tories can never compete with that.
But now they are so infected with Brexit, how the hell do they tempt back most normal people who used to vote for them before they went all weird and Francois-esque? Well, they could just deliver a Brexit that is unbelievably awesome, where everyone really does get to quit their jobs and live in some sort of Disneyland for English blokes. Oh yeah, that isn’t possible.
Up against the worst leader the Labour Party have ever had by miles, a Liberal Democrat party that had effectively given up, and a UKIP that self-destructed by becoming the BNP, the Tories decided to kill themselves anyhow. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: politics is weird.
Some of us were never that keen on Cameron, on the grounds that he was never a proper social conservative in the first place…
I think it’s a bit misleading to pretend he was the Conservative Party’s Blair. Blair got two thumpingly huge majorities. Cameron managed to eye out a tiny win at the second attempt. Okay, it’s not nothing, but it rather suggests that the ‘socially ultra-liberal, fiscally responsible’ message doens’t work for the Conservatives as much as it does Labour — which is hardly surprising, as it’s basically designed to appeal to university graduates and public sector workers, both of which groups (to the extent that they aren’t just the same group anyway) include large proportions who just viscerally hate the Conservatives.
So while you could claim that Cameron is the most successful Conservative leader since Major, and that would be hard to deny, I think it’s also true that he showed the limits of that modernising, cosmopolitan approach for them. Then May lost the 2017 election on a left-wing ‘park on Labour’s lawn’ manifesto.
All of which shows, I think, that when Labour ape the Conservatives, they win, but when the Conservatives ape Labour, they lose (or win but just barely). Maybe it would be worth trying being a proper conservative party that is the exact opposite of Corbyn’s socially-metropolitan-liberal, economically-hard-left support base, and seeing how that goes?
Paul W says
I am afraid that Mr Cameron conjured up these words for me: ‘slippery’ and ‘public relations’. But to be fair, he was a more than passable prime minister and a pretty good salesman for the Conservative party, as was Mr Tony for his New Labour party in his time.
I wouldn’t say that the Conservative manifesto in 2017 was ‘left-wing’ in any meaningful way. But I would call it ‘crass’. In particular, promoting a social care policy – seemingly plucked from nowhere – that looked a lot like an open-ended rip-off to anyone with income and assets above £100,000, thus alarming the voters that mattered most to the Conservative party’s electoral fortunes – its thrifty core supporter base.
Cameron gave them the stupid referendum in the first place, so the Brexiteers should love the chap
Yeah but he also called them ‘swivel-eyed loons’ and that sort of thing sticks in the memory.
Paul W says
I read somewhere that Mr Cameron had concluded – after Labour’s on-off (non) referendum on the mis-sold Lisbon constitutional ‘tidying-up exercise’ treaty of 2007/09 – that the democratic elastic of popular consent had been stretched as far as it would go without holding another British referendum on Europe at some point.
Now I don’t know if that really was his thinking, but it certainly makes sense in terms of what happened next – and the referendum result rather confirmed his alleged view. He should not be blamed for that.
Squirrel Nutkin says
That’s got some kind of internal logic to it, M. But how does it cope with the experience of Hague, IDS and Howard who all attempted to plant the Tory standard in anti-cosmopolitan ground and discovered that the swivel-eyed constituency was much smaller than it claimed to be?
Well, Hague inherited a party which was tired and in disarray from over a decade and a half in power, the last five years of which had been spent in open internal warfare that had left the public utterly fed up; IDS was still rebuilding from that, and Howard was only ever a caretaker. Even if any of them had had the talent to be a great leader (debatable) they would have found it difficult in that environment.
We can’t know for sure that there’s a vast untapped socially-conservative constituency out there that isn’t currently being served by either main party or indeed any of the minor ones. Especially given New Labour’s social engineering efforts in trying to increase its base by expanding higher education and the public sector, the effects of which are probably even now not yet fully felt. But we do know that chasing the socially-liberal vote is not a winning strategy for the Conservative party, because Cameron, a telented politician, tried it in probably some of the most favourable circumstances for the party (ie, a time of economic difficulty when Labour couldn’t just promise to outspend them on everything), and still only managed a tiny win on the second try (and if he hadn’t made his one concession to the socially conservative vote, the referendum promise, he might not even have got that).
So it’s got to be worth a try, hasn’t it?
The one thing that is for sure is that as long as they try to be all things to everyone they are doomed.
Matt (bristol) says
You do realise you are, along the way here, making an excellent Tory argument for the removal of one major thing that forces the Tories to try to be all things to all people – the First Past The Post voting system???
I don’t think you should choose a voting system based on how it would or would not benefit or harm any particular party. Setting the rules of the game should be not be done so as to pick a winner.