The Tories’ Historic Problem

Giles Marshall 10.00am

The Conservative Party returned to form in the wake of the local election results. The always fragile veneer of unity, that has been cracking regularly pretty well since the last general election, took a few more seismic hits.

Back out of their holes were the right-wing backbenchers and leader writers prescribing another dose of rightism, or “authentic conservatism” to use its current parlance, as a solution to the Tories’ electoral ills. 

Most laughable of all was the elevation of Boris Johnson – the one bright spot in the Tories’ election misery – as the champion of this authenticity.  Yes indeed, the Gay Pride marcher, serial adulterer and bike fanatic is, apparently, just the man to return us to those stoical social values of old.  Get thee behind us, evil modernising Dave Cameron and make way for Boris!

Well, Boris’ election victory as the triumph of personality over politics has been well commented on elsewhere – entertainingly by Jerry Hayes on Dale and Company, and perceptively and eloquently by Matthew D’Ancona in the Sunday Telegraph – while Craig has had his say on these pages.

What is worth looking at, if only because it offers us a useful perspective, is the historic problem of Tory election performance.

Go back far enough, to the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s, and the Tory election graph always seemed to be a source of optimism. Often victorious, certainly nation-encompassing, its occasional blips almost always a precursor to a return to power. 

This remarkable trend seemed to be further enhanced after Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory, and two successive triumphs in which she thumped the opposition.  Even John Major, in 1992, carried the party through adverse polls to victory. So what has happened since and where did the malaise set in? 

The reality is that the Tory election problem has been a long time coming, and can be traced back to the very point of its triumph, under Margaret Thatcher herself. What Mrs Thatcher’s election victories disguised with their scale was the retreat of Toryism across too many regions of the UK. The gradual reduction of Tory representation in the northern cities and Celtic lands continued apace under her stewardship, leaving the party as essentially the vehicle of the prosperous south and east of England. 

Perhaps this was the necessary price to pay for the polarising policies of the 1980s, policies that some would argue were unavoidable if Britain’s decline was to be averted.

But when the party was finally kicked out in 1997 many of its members – and certainly the majority of its MPs – refused to comprehend the message being delivered by the electorate. Ordinary voters had had their fill of Thatcherism. 

The Conservative party, however, seemed to have barely got going, as it embraced the Thatcherite agenda with even more vigour, turning its light towards Europe and social issues. The reason for this misunderstanding was down to the way in which Mrs Thatcher had been removed. 

The coup of 1990 was a rough and ready response to the poll tax problem and the arguably more serious destabilisation of her Cabinet over Europe.

After ten years in power, the leader herself was unable to provide any obvious solution to this twin-peaked volcano and was rudely removed, in a way suffered by no Tory leader before her.

The electorate was deprived of its chance to deliver a final verdict on the leaderene, while Tory MPs and members could forever after claim – correctly – that she had never suffered an election defeat as leader.

Had Margaret Thatcher been allowed to continue the course of her leadership and take her party into the 1992 (or it might have been 1991) election, the Thatcherite bubble would have been punctured and the Conservatives might just have been able to embark on a proper period of reconstitution, untroubled by the poison of an improper coup. As it is, too many Conservatives continue to prescribe the wrong medicine at times of electoral vulnerability. 

David Cameron managed to get the party as far as he did in 2010 because he had understood the need to speak to a non-Thatcherite electorate. Some of that modernising strategy may have thrown up a few red herrings, notably same-sex marriage, but it remains emphatically the right approach for a party that still needs to prove it can connect with the electorate at large.  

It is not even clear that full-blown austerity is either the right approach or the one that engenders the confidence of British people. Somewhere out there is a careful balance of cuts without economic pain. It may well be what we are seeking.

Until the Conservative party truly gets over its Thatcher moment, it will never genuinely start to become a national party once again. The Thatcherite agenda is not some sort of holy writ version of ‘authentic conservatism’. It was a controversial panacea for its time (drawn as much from nostrums of classical liberalism as anything else) that found its place in a pragmatic party of broader principles. 

It is time to embrace the 21st century.