Two years into government and not only the coalition but the Conservative Party is in trouble. Labour, despite the much-touted weakness of Ed Miliband and its heavy defeat by George Galloway in the Bradford by-election, is well ahead in the polls. If there was a general election now, it would probably win a majority. Of course there is no such election imminent, and of course governments regularly experience mid-term unpopularity. Nevertheless, the mood among Tory members at Westminster and activists in the constituencies is sour and even rebellious. Much of the criticism is directed at David Cameron himself; he hasn’t been forgiven for failing to win an outright majority in 2010.
Now the discontents of the Conservative Party may seem to matter little to most of us in Scotland. Its weakness this side of the Border has consigned it to the fringe of Scottish politics. Moreover, if we should vote for independence in a couple of years, the problems of the Tories in England will scarcely matter more than any problems the Christian Democrats may have in Germany. Yet it’s quite probable that we shall vote to remain within the United Kingdom, in which case, no matter how feeble the Scottish Tories may continue to be, the state of the Conservative Party can hardly be thought to be of little importance.
David Cameron is regarded with distrust by the most Tory of his reluctant followers. One of them, Don Porter, a former chairman of the National Conservative Convention, had a go at him in The Daily Telegraph yesterday. Mr Porter, describing himself as a Tory activist for 43 years, argued that Cameron’s determination to “detoxify” his party had dismayed activists and party members, and had cost votes . In 1992, he pointed out, John Major had got 14 million votes; two years ago Cameron got 11 million. So, Mr Porter wrote, Cameron had “failed to win back more than three million voters who supported us in 1992.” It may have escaped his notice that many of these three million are now dead.
Cameron’s modernising policies have, it seems, been bad for the Party. “There has been”, in Mr Porter’s opinion, “a growing disconnect between the leadership and the grass roots, and a loss of clarity, principle and direction.” The first of these complaints may be justified. Cameron probably doesn’t much like the party activists, and its grass roots. Few Tory leaders have. Margaret Thatcher was an exception; she loved the party and the party faithful responded by loving her.
Mr Porter continues: “Detoxification’ saw us ignore issues where we were clearly in tune with the voters, such as immigration and Europe.” No doubt there is some truth in this, and indeed several hundred thousand natural Tory voters have defected to Ukip. Yet this argument overlooks the fact that the Tories put immigration and our relations with Europe at the forefront of their campaigns in 2001 and 2005 – and lost badly in both elections. Admittedly, Labour was still riding high then and the economy seemed in good health. Nevertheless Mr Porter’s argument invites the question: how many people who voted Conservative in 2010 would not have done so if Cameron hadn’t set out to detoxify the Tory brand?
A party needs activists, even today when door-to-door canvassing is less important than it used to be. Yet it is in the nature of things that party activists are not representative of the wider electorate. The call for the sort of “real Tory” policies that appeal to activists and party members is likely to alienate more voters than it attracts. It is the mirror-image of the “real Labour” policies advocated by Tony Benn and his followers in the Eighties – policies that contributed to Labour’s disastrous showing in 1983. To win elections you have to appeal to more than your core support.
A comparison with the SNP is useful. In the 1990s there was fierce argument between the “gradualists” and the “fundamentalists”, between those, led by Alex Salmond , who saw independence being achieved by modest short-term advances, and those who regarded devolution as a Labour trap. Suppose the fundamentalists had won. Many party activists would have been delighted. But does anyone think the SNP would be where it is today if it had taken the fundamentalist route? Alex Salmond had to “detoxify” the party to make it more popular, and to attract the “soft nationalist” vote.
Margaret Thatcher was a remarkable leader and for the most part a very effective prime minister. She did many good things, many necessary things, as well as some bad ones (like all Prime Ministers). She won three elections, though she did so partly because she was lucky enough to be faced with a divided and mostly inept opposition.
Yet, in the long run, she did great harm to the Conservative Party. This was because she was divisive. She spoke of “our people” – who were, however, only a section of the British people. She forgot Disraeli’s assertion that “the Conservative Party is a national party, or it is nothing.” Rejecting the one-nation conservatism of Baldwin, Butler and Macmillan, she made her party a less than national one. Consequently it scarcely exists now in Scotland and the cities and towns of the north and Midlands of England. It has become the party of the south and south-east of England – and this, as much as for any other reason, is why David Cameron failed to win an overall majority two years ago.
His policy of modernisation and detoxification was intended to widen his party’s appeal. It did have a fair measure of success in 2010 when the Tories at least overturned a big Labour majority. Whether he can pursue it successfully in office may be doubtful – especially in view of the dire financial position the Coalition Government inherited, since this has required it to take measures that are unavoidably unpopular. But one thing is certain: if he was to retreat and adopt “true Tory policies” such as Mr Porter and many activists demand, he might be popular with his core supporters, but he would be heading for defeat in the next election, probably for a heavy one.