Peter Snowdon: The Conservatives may have come back from the brink of annihilation - but the party now faces the closest election battle in decades
Peter Snowdon is the author of Back from the Brink: The Inside Story of the Tory Resurrection, which is published today by HarperPress. He will be talking about the book at the Royal Society of Arts on 18th March.
"We will be tested. I will be tested. I’m ready for that... So yes, there is a steep climb ahead. But I tell you this: the view from the summit will be worth it."
David Cameron could not have chosen a more apt metaphor to describe the journey his party has to complete if it is to return to power. The scale of the task is formidable, as readers of ConservativeHome will be only too aware.
Chronicling the last thirteen years, the longest uninterrupted period in Opposition the Conservatives have endured since 1832, has also been a rollercoaster journey. Contemporary history enables an author to capture the drama of an unfolding story. But it also means that the narrative can turn in the most unexpected directions. While researching and writing my book, the banking system could have collapsed bringing the economy to a complete halt and a snap general election could have been called either by design (after Gordon Brown became Prime Minister) or through the sheer pressure of events (amid the expenses scandal last year). Now that the Parliament has run its course, this author has breathed a sigh of relief!
The inspiration for Back from the Brink comes partly from the experience of collaborating with Anthony Seldon on his two-volume biography of Tony Blair. The material from that project was gleaned from hundreds of interviews with the leading protagonists, including those at the heart of Blair’s inner circle. For this project, I was fortunate enough to speak to successive leaders, their advisers and senior figures across the party from the Shadow Cabinet to representatives of the grassroots. I hope that it provides an unvarnished and fair account of how the party dramatically lost its way in Opposition and began to beat a path to recovery.
"Standing there, I really did think that we were seeing the annihilation of a party that was capable of functioning in the future."
Those fatalistic words of Oliver Letwin capture the sense of trepidation that many senior Tories felt as they stood outside Conservative Central Office on a windswept night in late October 2003. A majority of Tory MPs had just voted to depose Iain Duncan Smith after a prolonged period of acrimony, division and despair. The party teetered on the brink of an implosion midway through the Parliament.
Another leadership election could have laid the party low. David Davis compares what happened to a recent European Football Championship qualifier match between England and Turkey, where a fight had started on the pitch and continued in the tunnel afterwards. A contest, he told me, "would be like the fight that goes on into the tunnel. It would have run into the next general election, which was only a year or so away, and Labour might have gone early to catch us when we were barely out of it." A coronation seemed the only way to provide some semblance of stability.
As it was, the Conservatives under Michael Howard fell to a third successive defeat in 2005 but had avoided the kind of devastating defeat that many had predicted only eighteen months beforehand. The leadership election that followed was a turning point for the party. Instead of descending into bitter personality clashes and obsessive debates about Europe, it went through something of a catharsis before plumping for the untried but attractive proposition of David Cameron. Its broken relationship with the electorate was debated in an open and mature manner.
Cameron emerged as a rank outsider to take the leadership. Some of Cameron’s team were not optimistic about his chances of beating the frontrunner, David Davis, before the Blackpool conference. "David very, very nearly pulled out because he didn’t want to be humiliated," recalls one confidant. "Someone’s got to stop Davis," Cameron insisted at the time. "I have to press on – if I win the leadership in 2010 or 2016, we’ll be out for a generation." His determination against the odds would stand him in good stead as leader. He would certainly need it.
David Cameron’s first year as leader was filled with sunny optimism – his long honeymoon coincided with third term blues for the government. As Tony Blair’s exit drew closer, the Tory leadership was increasingly sanguine about its prospects having staked a claim to champion the environment, the NHS and economic stability. The project to cleanse its reputation as uncaring, narrow minded and obsessed with only a few issues, such as Europe and immigration, was making headway. For the first time since 1992, the party had begun to build a consistent, albeit modest lead in the polls.
The buoyant mood would not last. A damaging row over grammar schools policy, unease among the grassroots about the leadership’s efforts to introduce more women and ethnic minority parliamentary candidates and Gordon Brown’s self-assured performance as Prime Minister in the summer of 2007 imperilled the Tory recovery. It took an eye-grabbing policy on inheritance tax, a bullish speech from Cameron and the misjudgment of his opponents to stave off the threat of a snap election.
No sooner had the Tories built a commanding lead in the polls did the leadership find itself responding to a new set of crises. The fall of Lehman Brothers, a deepening recession and the biggest scandal to engulf Westminster for years could have derailed the Cameron project. While the financial crisis exposed flaws in the leadership’s nascent approach to economic policy, the expenses furore was seized upon as an opportunity to provide a clear public position by getting its own house in order. This Cameron did, although there was little love lost with some resentful Tory MPs, as the book reveals.
It is sometimes suggested that David Cameron has had a smooth ride as Opposition leader while the government has had to contend with the recession and plots from within to remove the Prime Minister from office. Yet those around Cameron have taken nothing for granted in recent months, not least because of the electoral mountain of gaining 117 seats just to win a majority of one. "We all feel, from the boss down, that it is a big ask to win this election – the figures are immense," recalled one of his aides late last year. "We expect the polls to narrow, and a lot still can happen. It’s not a done deal at all." Little did they expect the polls to narrow quite so soon.
At his party’s spring forum in Brighton last weekend, Cameron acknowledged that the election would be a close fight. Confidence has returned within Labour’s ranks – not least because Gordon Brown has a spring in his step for the first time in eighteen months.
If Cameron and his party are to overcome the jittery nerves that have beset them since the beginning of the year, they will need to find clarity on what will be the central issue of the campaign – the economy. Much will hinge on the quarterly GDP figures next month, which will show whether Britain’s precarious recovery is intact or in jeopardy. If it is the latter, their call for austerity measures will be strengthened. Whatever happens, the Tory campaign will need to articulate a vision for Britain that goes beyond the slogan "Vote for Change". What looked like a one-way fight a few months ago now promises to be one of the closest election battles in decades. The weeks and months ahead will really test a party that has come back from the brink.