The Battle for Britain
In 2005 the Conservative party crashed to its third defeat at the hands of Tony Blair’s Labour. Michael Howard delayed his resignation to give the Conservatives time to reflect on how they had reached this sorry state and ponder what they should do about it.
Looking back to their last days in power before the 1997 election defeat Conservatives saw three factors at play. First, was their bitter civil war over the European Union; second, the steady stream of sleaze scandals; and third, general public boredom with a Conservative government which had been around since 1979.
But by 2005 most of these issues had gone. Blair had neutered Europe as an issue for the time being by promising a referendum on British membership of the euro. In government, Labour had proved just as sleazy as the Conservatives were. And, after eight years of Labour government, the Conservatives looked ever so slightly fresher.
And still they lost. Even against a Labour government which had bent the facts to send British soldiers into Iraq to remove weapons of mass destruction which weren’t actually there, they had lost. Again the question: why?
A bit of research emerged at around this time which showed that people generally approved of Conservative party policies until they found out they were Conservative party policies. To one group of Bright Young Things this indicated that the problem was one of marketing and the search was on for a salesman. Step forward David Cameron.
Cameron had only been in Parliament for four years before he decided to run for the Party leadership. But he had plenty of political experience; indeed, he had done little else since university. He went straight into a job with the Conservative party. From there he became Director of Corporate Affairs (whatever that is) for a TV company, a role which appears to have involved talking to politicians a lot.
It was this presumed media savvy which won Cameron the leadership in 2005. The party wanted someone to put an acceptable face on apparently popular policies. It didn’t want to be Theresa May’s “nasty party” anymore and Cameron promised to make them “feel good about being Conservatives again”
He and the Cameroons who gathered around him had reached political maturity during Blair’s reign. They had seen how Blair had taken over a party which couldn’t even win an election against John Major in the middle of a recession and comfortably won three elections on the bounce. They believed Blair had managed this by ‘detoxifying’ the Labour brand, by taking on and ridding the party of its madder elements. They determined to do the same for the Conservatives.
On one level this meant delving into Blair’s bag of media tricks. Call Me Dave gave speeches without notes, took his jacket off, went sledging, rolled his sleeves up, hugged hoodies, and at the 2006 party conference he made more wardrobe changes than Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra.
But on a deeper level the Cameroons were searching for a ‘Clause IV Moment’, the symbolic point when you tame your extremists and embrace electability. Their calculation was that they could bully and pick fights with their ‘right wing’ and in doing so they would attract support from the fabled ‘centre’. After all, they reasoned, any right wingers who didn’t enjoy being bullied by them had, like Richard Gere, “nowhere else to go”
But there was a problem. By 1994 the Labour left had been so utterly discredited that the original Clause IV Moment was simply an overdue act of euthanasia. In theory, and in practice, during the post war period the left wing orthodoxy of high tax and even higher public spending had been exposed as the economic suicide it remains.
By contrast no such thing happened to the ideas of the Conservative right. Indeed, the last few years have seen one formerly ‘controversial’ view of theirs after another be resoundingly vindicated. Immigration is too high. Government is spending too much. The euro is a disaster.
Ultimately the Cameroon strategy failed. After five years of ‘rebranding’, against one of the most incompetent administrations in history, and in the middle of a recession, in May 2010 the Conservatives failed to win their fourth election in a row.
And those right wingers didn’t just sit around meekly soaking up the punishment Cameron dished out to them in a vain effort to impress the Guardianistas. Lots of them buggered off to UKIP. And how did Cameron, the master political operator (sic), respond? He was gratuitously rude to them. Again. In the Telegraph last week Dan Hodges wrote that come 2015 “the vast bulk of [Ukip’s] remaining support will come home, reluctantly, to David Cameron.” No, it won’t. And why should it if Cameron keeps abusing them to solicit a favourable glance from Polly Toynbee?
Cameron’s support rises when he pursues Conservative policies; the EU veto and welfare reform, for example. Now, I’m no Central Office genius, but perhaps there’s something in this? Perhaps it’s time for Cameron to stop his fruitless flirting with some mythical centre (which is, in reality, just a punji trap with the sharpened heads of George Monbiot and Mehdi Hasan at the bottom) and remember that he’s a Conservative?
The long term Cameroon strategy of replacing the Conservative right with the Labour right will fail. Its hysterical reaction to even the mild fiscal medicine administered by the coalition demonstrates that Cameron will never find enough votes from that quarter to replace the real Conservatives he sent off in Nigel Farage’s direction.
As 2015 approaches Cameron might find he needs to Hug a Ukipper. If he carries on this pathetic baiting they’ll probably tell him to get stuffed.