In his column for yesterday's Times (£) Danny Finkelstein had a go at the 27 Conservative MPs who voted for Bill Cash's amendment on affirming parliamentary sovereignty (Bill told me last night that there were also 14 principled abstentions). In the Times video (£) that accompanies his piece Danny accuses Cash & Co of trying to pull the Conservative Party towards the "extremes".
I probably wouldn't have supported the Cash amendment but there really was nothing extreme about it. I saw Danny's article as an attempt to paint the whole growing number of Tory rebels as somehow out-of-touch. In reality on other rebellions - notably the EU budget and votes for prisoners - the backbench rebels are actually closer to public opinion than the frontbench.
My main quarrel with Danny's article was this paragraph:
"There is still the unresolved question of the election, with many on the Right advancing the entertaining theory that if the party had been more “robust” (in other words right-wing) it would have won a majority."
David Cameron has also used this line to defend the Tory election campaign. To say that critics of Tory strategy simply wanted (and want) the party to move to the right is such an oversimplification that it is misleading.
I don't know if the blobogram below will help but I've drawn it to point to the complexity of the issues that the right/left caricature doesn't begin to capture.
HOW CAMERON FOUGHT THE LAST ELECTION
In the chart I map the Tory campaign on what I believe are four useful contrasts:
- Bigger government versus smaller government: The Tory campaign was clearly on the smaller government side of the argument but actually spelt out so few cuts in contrast to the defined spending commitments that I haven't given it a big small government identity.
- Liberal versus conservative: There were elements of both in the Tory campaign. On the liberal side we had gay rights and scrapping ID cards. On the conservative side we had messages on marriage and immigration but I've given neither a lot of blue on the map because none of the positions were declared loudly.
- Reform versus reassurance: The party did have some reform messages but it gave more volume to its reassurance messages on, for example, NHS spending and benefits for pensioners.
- Grand versus specific: The Cameron campaign was clearly much grander than specific. We had, for example, lots on the Big Society but few retail policy pledges. Lots on cutting the deficit but little on how. The best example of this grandness problem was constant talking of the commitment to spend more on the NHS without setting out what it meant (eg the cancer drugs guarantee or ending mixed wards).
My own view is that Cameron would have won the election outright even if he'd made no policy changes. We lost the election because (1) we agreed to the game changing debates, (2) we rarely spelt out how our policy ideas would practically benefit people (something we are still not doing), (3) we spent far too much money late on (with big billboards rather than targeted mail and internet campaigns) and (4) we over-emphasised some policies in the campaign to the exclusion of others (hardly talked about welfare for example but had a whole day devoted to a school music competition) and (5), a related point, strategically Cameronism was presented as a changing rather than a broadening of the party.
(5) is the Liberal Conservatives' greatest mistake. There was nothing wrong with most of what the Conservative Party has stood for on 'core vote issues'. Our historic weakness was our failure to ALSO talk about the NHS, welfare and the environment. By shifting our messages so much the party risked appearing inauthentic.