I can remember when Britain’s Conservative Party was thought to be the country’s natural party of government. This feeling reached a peak after John Major’s shock win in 1992, when the party looked all but unelectable. The journalist Will Hutton wrote a best-seller “The State We’re In” which explained why. The party was deeply embedded into the country’s establishment. The discipline of its membership was legendary. Its hunger for power also made it adept at judicious compromise. It was a well oiled machine to keep an elite in power. The brief intervals of post-war Labour government in 1945, 1964 and 1974 seemed like awkward aberrations. Now, as the party wrestles with today’s vote on same-sex marriage, many observers of the British political scene wonder whether the party will ever secure a majority in the House of Commons after that win in 1992. What went wrong?
The party’s troubles are clearly deep. When David Cameron took over, after the party’s third successive defeat in 2005 it was clear that the party’s image with the public was toxic. Polling showed, the story went, that if the party came out in favour of a particular policy then that was reason enough to turn people against the policy. Mr Cameron’s mission was to re-brand and de-toxify the party, much as Tony Blair did with the Labour Party after that defeat in 1992. It seemed to be working. Mr Cameron embraced liberal causes like environmentalism and the inclusion of gays, while putting the party’s obsessions with Europe into the background. In doing so Mr Cameron put the party’s official position in a place where most Britons would not disagree with it. The party’s enthusiasm for the privatisation of public services was, and is, the only major exception.
He failed to win a majority in 2010, but by embracing coalition with the Liberal Democrats, he seemed burnish the party’s liberal credentials. While the Lib Dems were thrown into existential crisis, it seemed that the Tories were on a stepping stone towards power in their own right. But then people started to discover what the new Conservatives were really like. The problem wasn’t so much the Coalition’s programme of austerity and public service reform – “The Cuts”. These have produced a deafening whining sound from the left of the political spectrum. But these mainly originate from a complacent Labour establishment who had got used to a way of doing things, and it is not resonating with a majority of the British public. It is more of a problem for the Lib Dem element of the coalition than the Conservatives, though the NHS reforms remain a danger to both parties.
The real problem for the Tories comes on just those symbolic issues where Mr Cameron had tried to change the mood music. An obsession with the European Union and calls for a referendum on it have come to the fore. Reform to the House of Lords was firmly squashed, notwithstanding a seeming commitment to it in the party’s 2010 election manifesto. And now same-sex marriage (“equal marriage” to its supporters, “redefinition of marriage” to its opponents, “gay marriage” to the BBC). I must admit that this is an issue I struggle to get worked up about. But most of my friends are for it (though at least one is a passionate opponent), and it fits with my generally progressive outlook on life. Our understanding of what marriage is has changed over the years. But to many people in the country the reform is the last straw in a constant process of the undermining of traditional values. Such people feel that the political system tramples over them regardless, and their frustration makes them angry. They are in a minority, but not a voiceless one. They are particulalry well represented in the ranks of the Conservative Party, and many Tory MPs are taking up their cause.
This leaves three problems for Mr Cameron and his modernising allies. First is that it exposes divisions in his party, and that makes it look less credible as a governing party. Second it shows that whatever Mr Cameron may promise, even if it is in the election manifesto (same-sex marriage wasn’t in the main manifesto, it has to be said, but in separate party publications for the gay community), he cannot deliver on liberal, reforming policies that do not involve privatisation. Third is that there is a risk of defection from the traditional wing of his party in protest, reducing the party’s potential in the electoral ground war, and potentially helping UKIP, which is positioning itself as a vehicle for just such traditionalists. Under the country’s electoral system it is tough enough for the Tories to win outright. Surely it is now impossible?
Of course Mr Blair faced major challenges from Labour traditionalists, but still forged a highly effective political machine that still looks in good shape, even after its heavy defeat in 2010. But Mr Cameron does not command anything like the same loyalty amongst party apparatchics, and above all MPs, that Mr Blair commanded at the equivalent stage in his government. Mr Cameron never attempted Mr Blair’s “Clause 4 moment”, of a deliberately engineered confrontation with his critics to show he was boss.
Is it all lost for Mr Cameron? Not quite. There is always the example of 1992. Then the Tories were able to demonise the Labour Party and its leader sufficiently to scare first the press, and then voters into voting for it in large numbers. Ed Miliband, like Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader in 1992, does not cut a particularly prime ministerial figure. There may well be an opportunity to stoke fears about tax rises under Labour too. As the General Election approaches Mr Cameron could rally the dissidents. He can still call on rich donors and much of the press will still rally to their cause.
But the Conservatives are no longer the party of the establishment. Their hidden advantages, so strong in the 20th Century, are eroding away. The 2015 election looks like another stalemate.