David Cameron may hold on to power at the next general election – probably as leader of the largest party and possibly with a small majority of his own. But if he begins a second prime ministerial term it won’t be because he has addressed the Conservative party’s long-standing and deep-seated electoral weaknesses. It will be because in Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, Labour has its weakest leadership team since 1983. The Tories plan a deeply negative campaign. They hope to heal the fracture on the right of British politics by scaring UKIP voters with the prospect of Ed Miliband as prime minister. It might succeed. On many measures tested by YouGov, voters find Miliband an even less impressive politician than Gordon Brown.
David Cameron is not, of course, without qualities. Against many expectations he has forged and maintained the unity of Britain’s first post-war coalition government. He and his chancellor, George Osborne, kept their nerve on deficit reduction and the UK’s economy is now recovering quite quickly – albeit in an unbalanced way. The wisest Tory MPs look to the future, however, and to the stubbornness of their party’s long-term weaknesses. Only one MP in Scotland. Minimal support among Britain’s growing ethnic populations. And almost no representation at all in Britain’s great northern cities. Cameronism hasn’t addressed those problems and party modernisation is not so much an incomplete project as one that’s barely begun.
Behind the speculation about whether Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Theresa May or perhaps a member of the 2010 Tory intake will succeed David Cameron are bigger questions about Tory strategy. A party that hasn’t won a majority since 1992 – before a football had been kicked in the English premiership and before any of us had ever used or even heard of the internet – needs substantial reinvention.
That reinvention needs to address one substantial weakness above all others – the Tories are not seen to sufficiently care about the ordinary man and woman in the street. Voters like Tory instincts on tax, crime, Europe and immigration but they worry that Conservatives are insufficiently interested in the public services, too much a party of the rich and are likely to leave people on their own in tough times. In other words, the British electorate doesn’t mind a right-wing party – they just want it to be a right-wing party with a heart. The British electorate doesn’t mind a right-wing party – they just want it to be a right-wing party with a heart.
Cameron took the party in the wrong direction in the early years of his leadership. He stopped talking about immigration. He promised not to “bang on” about Europe. He avoided talk of tax cuts. The result was a huge gap in the political market and a huge opportunity for Nigel Farage – an opportunity he seized with all the fingers of the one hand he wasn’t holding a pint with.
The danger, post-Cameron, is that the party lurches in another wrong direction. The libertarian right, for example, want the party to become a party of freedom – unshackling people and the economy from the state. This desire is understandable. The British state, our deficit and the tax burden are all too large. But in wanting and needing a smaller government it is important that Conservatives appreciate that people want security as much as freedom. Many voters – perhaps most – aren’t excited by stories of people being born on the wrong side of the tracks and scaling great heights. They’ll never break through glass ceilings. Yes, they want and benefit from an economy that encourages aspiration but they also want an economy that doesn’t leave people behind – that stands for social solidarity as well as social mobility. The next Tory majority will be built on an appreciation of this – an account of the security that government must continue to provide as well as a commitment to end the projects that are no longer affordable.
Communicating this vision of conservatism – a patriotic conservatism that loves the nation’s people as much as its flag, institutions and history – will require some bold policy changes. A truly National Conservative party will impose higher taxes on large properties in order to fund social housing. It will restrict wealthier pensioners’ access to benefits and fund early intervention in vulnerable children’s lives. It will require private schools to provide more scholarships. It will allow northern England to keep the proceeds from fracking.
All of this one nation Conservatism will give the party the permission to accelerate the wider reforms necessary for our long-term prosperity. Airport expansion. Tax simplification. Deregulation. Greater competition in key public services. A party committed to the creation of wealth but also to sharing it.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of the Fabian Review.