A MISTAKE people make about the Conservative Party’s decision to elect David Cameron leader in 2005 is that it represented some fundamental shift in the attitudes of its membership.
When the rank-and-file choose him over David Davies, Kenneth Clarke and Liam Fox, it wasn’t because he had unlocked in them a suppressed love for his favourite band, The Smiths, or some barely contained desire to save the planet. It was because he looked like he might be able to win an election. And, five years later, he almost did.
But there is a very great difference between Cameron telling us the Tory Party has changed and it actually changing. And if we needed a reminder, last week’s House of Commons rebellion by eurosceptic Conservative backbenchers was perfect.
It showed the Prime Minister struggling to control a party he has not reshaped, despite the brightly repeated message to the contrary. The 53 rebels who – alongside a shamelessly opportunistic and politically savvy Labour Party – inflicted a symbolic defeat on the government by demanding a cut in European Union funding may make up a sixth of the Tories’ Westminster group, but do they represent the views of just a sixth of Tories?
On the day of the vote (which isn’t binding), noted high-profile Eurosceptics such as Liam Fox and Jacob Rees-Mogg were on the floor of the Commons trying to hustle support for the coalition government among their fellow doubters. The PM’s defeat may have been far greater had it not been for the loyalty of close colleagues and whipped backbenchers who don’t share his views on the EU.
Doesn’t this raise questions about Cameron’s project to rebrand the Conservatives? Hasn’t he tried to go too far, and failed? When Cameron became leader, the “nasty party” identity was the issue he had to address. Being a clever observer, he saw how Tony Blair and his closest confidantes had shifted Labour to the centre ground, from where elections are won. Just as the former Labour PM had pulled his party from the left, so Cameron would from the right. And, in doing so, he would redesign the Conservatives.
It’s a good idea in theory, but the Labour leader had an advantage: the innate conservatism of voters. Tony Blair could lead his party to the centre in the reasonably safe knowledge that there was nowhere credible on the left for his members or voters to go. The same was not true for David Cameron. Each of those rebels on Wednesday represents a reminder that anti-Europe UKIP is standing by, ready to scoop up support. There is a tendency for us in Scotland to underestimate the power of UKIP, but the 16.5 per cent who backed them in the 2009 European elections is too significant for the PM to ignore. And, given his failure to win a clear Westminster majority the following year, Cameron would have bitten off their hands for the 3+ per cent who backed UKIP in the General Election.
Of course, hatred of the EU is a particular fetish for some on the Tory right, but this rebellion surely points to a wider problem – Cameron’s failure to define his party clearly as Conservatives of the 21st Century. Let’s rewind again to 2005, when Cameron was the new star of British politics. In comparison to his predecessor Michael Howard, he appeared a completely different animal. Young – definitely Blairish in style – his presence suggested a shift in the Tory Party’s approach to the modern world. The reality didn’t quite bear that out.
David Davies, with all his striped tie old-Tory moves, led the first round of ballots, with Cameron pulling ahead after Clarke and Fox were eliminated.
Just seven years ago, it was an unreconstructed right-winger who ran Cameron closest. And those party members who backed Davies – and the voters whose views they share – haven’t died off. Political sense means it’s time for the PM to start feeding them again. His Lib Dem colleagues in the coalition may feel uncomfortable, but Cameron needs to seem like a Tory again, with all that entails.
In working to shed the darker aspects of their reputation, the PM seems to have lost his sense of his own party’s identity. Of course, there should be no return to the “nasty party” language on matters social and moral, but what does he have to lose by being more distinctively Tory, particularly on Europe? Hasn’t his creation of a broad church concentrated too much on finding space for the curious at the expense of the truly faithful?
Unlike his recent predecessors, Cameron has no obvious predator in his parliamentary group. His continued responsibility as mayor of London means the most widely speculated about “next leader”, Boris Johnson, remains at a safe distance.
But that can be no reason for complacency on that part of the Premier. If he doesn’t start reaching out to his own right-wingers, and voters who find UKIP a more appealing option, then it’s a matter of when, not if, a replacement is found.
Cameron’s premiership has been fascinating: the coalition has been a bold experiment and I have some sympathy with both partners, forced by circumstances to reach an agreement with uneasy bedfellows. That the coalition endures is testament to some real political ability on the part of the PM (and his much derided but not-at-all-bad deputy, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg).
Cameron was not elected Conservative leader, however, on the basis that he might be able to form a coalition at some point. He was elected because members felt he would bring their values to government again.
Watching the coalition’s defeat on Wednesday, it struck me again that he has failed to do that. David Cameron was backed by his party to make sellable their strand of right-wing politics. Instead, he looks like he’s presiding over a facsimile of New Labour. And that’s no way to sustain any Conservative rebirth.