John O’Sullivan: The next election is probably already lost but a programme of long-term renewal may also help the Conservative Party maximise its vote against Brown
Former Special Adviser to Margaret Thatcher, John is now Editor-in-Chief of the international affairs magazine, The National Interest, Editor-at-Large of the magazine the National Review, and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.
The first step is to face reality. Gordon Brown will probably win the next election and, if he does not, the likely reason is that he will have been defeated by events in the real world. But be of good cheer. “Project Cameron” has been only a modest contributory factor to this discouraging prospect.
Its first phase—“I’m a Celebrity, Get Me out of Opposition”—never really took. It won few converts and gave a general impression of frivolity and cynicism which Brown has shrewdly exploited. Its second phase—here are the in-depth conservative policies at long last—has hit an obvious obstacle: any serious conservative policies are likely to clash with the fashionable postures of phase one, generating both ideological confusion and media embarrassment. See the coverage of the Redwood-Wolfson report.
Some journalists, justifying their own predictions, camouflage these failures with the line: “But Cameron has made the Conservatives electable again.” Really? A party that was only four points behind Labour in the 2005 election was always electable. Polls today show that the Tories, after a short bounce largely attributable to Blair’s unpopularity, are back to that level. So “Project Cameron” has not really improved matters but, on the other hand, the crisis of Toryism was never as deep as the more masochistic modernisers believed. A Tory revival is perfectly possible, though not guaranteed, if the party keeps its head and acts sensibly.
And there is a third reason for comfort: the actions needed for a long-term revival are pretty much the same as those required to profit from a Labour downturn before or during the next election. Let me suggest a few to the party leadership:
First, don’t strategise in public. It gives the impression, mentioned above, of insincerity and cynicism and subtly devalues any political or moral commitment you make. Policies should be justified on the grounds that they are good for the country, not that they are useful devices for getting elected.
Second, re-discover the concept of intellectual investment. “Project Cameron” is rooted in the assumption that the current intellectual and cultural climate in Britain cannot be seriously challenged. It must therefore be appeased. But even if the Tories could be elected by appeasing a fundamentally inhospitable culture—which is doubtful—they would then have to steer by the same stars in government, probably onto the rocks. Once you accept that victory in the next election is unlikely, however, you can begin the long process of persuading the nation, including the media, that such values as patriotism, self-reliance, and enterprise—and such approaches as choice, competition, and diversity of provision in public services—are both admirable and sensible.
Third, don’t be afraid of novel ideas. Remember, you are thinking and persuading for the long term. You can afford to launch initiatives that might initially strike people as risky or eccentric but that make sense when properly explained over time. My own pet notion here: replace the fixed school leaving age with one where children can leave when they pass a (stiffish) examination. That would give disruptive pupils a real incentive to learn; they might even find they liked it and remain to study. Okay, maybe you don’t favor this particular idea. But a willingness to be intellectually and politically adventurous would make the Tories exciting again.
Fourth, get over your obsessions with immigration, crime and Europe. Treat them for what they are: important issues of real concern on which the Tories are instinctively more trusted by the voters than Labour. Advance sensible policies on them that reflect both popular views and Tory principles. Include them in a wider menu of policies. Your mistake in the 2005 manifesto was not to highlight immigration but to have nothing distinctive to say on almost anything else, especially on the central issue of taxation and public spending. On Europe, for instance, talk to George Osborne’s father-in-law who understands that Britain’s economic and political future lies more with Asia and North America (in particular with the so-called Anglosphere) than with the European Union. Isn’t this a novel idea requiring long-term intellectual investment? Certainly, but it is one with better prospects of ultimate electoral and practical success than the necrophiliac policy of merging gradually into some new European semi-state entity. And almost any response would be better than the current Tory attitude of primly averting one’s gaze, like a maiden lady frightened by something nasty in the woodshed, whenever these topics intrude on polite political conversation.
Fifth, if you really must have a “Clause Four” (in American English, a “Sister Souljah”) moment, then aim it in the right direction. There are no Thatcherite extremists comparable to the Bennites and Trotskyists in the Labour Party. Compare the polling numbers on the death penalty and nationalisation to get the point. If Cameroons have a reassurance problem, it is the need to demonstrate that they are not political metrosexuals more anxious to please the Guardian and the BBC rather than the Mail and the Telegraph. So look for an issue on which to strike a populist-conservative note. You muffed your chance to vote against the illiberal and uncompassionate legislation that will compel all adoption agencies to place children with gay couples and therefore force the closure of Catholic agencies, dooming more children to perpetual orphanhood. In doing so, you failed both to strike a conservative moral note and to defend the genuinely liberal principle of a society that tolerates diverse moral traditions. Another chance will come along in time. Please don’t muff that too.
Finally, don’t get hung up on the division between power and principle. Power is sought to implement principle; yet principles can also be implemented from out of power. If the Tory Opposition had not fought for a referendum on the European Constitution three years ago, Blair would not have agreed to it; if Blair had not done so, the French would not have felt compelled to hold a referendum too; if the French referendum had not been held, the Constitution would have sailed through. So the Tory Opposition significantly altered history on that occasion—a better service to conservatism than the Major government’s acquiescence in the further advance to European integration under the Maastricht Treaty.
There’s a general lesson here. It is quite common for strong and intellectually self-confident oppositions to drag governments in their ideological direction. That should matter more than simply getting one’s bottom onto the Treasury bench—especially if you don’t manage to get your bottom onto the Treasury bench next time.
This is the final contribution to ConservativeHome's What David Cameron Should Do Next series. Click here then scroll down the page below this article to see them all.