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Tim Bale: How the Conservative Party has made the journey from the political wilderness of the 1990s to being on the cusp of power once again

Picture 3 Dr Tim Bale is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Sussex University and is the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, published this week by Polity Press.  He will be launching the book this Wednesday, 3rd February, at a public lecture and Q&A at the LSE which will be chaired by ConservativeHome’s Jonathan Isaby.

Devoted denizens of ConservativeHome could hardly be blamed if they preferred to file and forget a fair few of the twenty years that have elapsed since Margaret Thatcher’s departure from office, especially now that the Tories look set for a return to power.  But remembering what happened over the last two decades is important – if only, once they take office, to avoid repeating the mistakes which tipped the Conservative Party into opposition in the first place, as well to learn from the errors that trapped it there for so long.  After all, the seeds of the serial defeats inflicted by Tony Blair were sown several years before 1997, and the Party was to a very great extent the author of its own misfortunes in the years that followed.

Part of the problem under both Thatcher and Major was that the Tories began to believe their own propaganda.  Rather than realising that their electoral victories in 1983, 1987 and 1992 were contingent affairs – achieved through a combination of astute timing and a Labour opposition widely seen as incompetent and out of touch – Conservatives too eagerly bought into the myth that they had ‘won the battle of ideas’ and thereby won over a stodgily centrist country to the advantages of small-state neo-liberalism.  As a result, instead of offering a change of direction, the Party believed it could, under John Major, get away with offering a change of tone. 

In fact, by the early 1990s, polls were showing that public had got pretty much all they wanted from the Conservatives and were looking for a government that was going to invest more in health and education, not close coalmines, privatise the railways and the post office, and clamp down on spending.  Yet, rather than making for the politically more profitable centre before Labour finally got its act together, the Party – consumed by its own internal rows over Europe – seemed instead to head for the hills.

Picture 5 The scale of the defeat the Conservatives suffered in 1997 should have given them pause for thought.  That it didn’t was in no small part due to the fact that Major’s immediate resignation pushed the Party straight into a precipitate leadership election.  That contest not only landed it with a leader that the public (however much the party’s activists loved – and still love – him) simply couldn’t take seriously.  It also prevented the kind of post-mortem that just might have persuaded the Party that its problem was the product not just the salesman.  As a result, at least a year or two was wasted while the Party, which complacently assumed it had to do little more than say a few superficial mea culpas for the sleaze and internal disunity of the Major years, woke up to the fact that Blair and Brown were delivering the combination of social spending and economic dynamism which, however superficial, was all too likely to lead to re-election.

Even then, this belated realisation that things would have to change more fundamentally if the Tories were to avoid another rout – was far from widespread and many of those who did ‘get it’ were simply sidelined.  By that time Hague was as worried about holding on to his job as he was about winning the general election.  The problem was that remaining leader involved pandering to the populism that went down a treat with the Party’s media cheerleaders but which a) turned off well-heeled ‘small-l’ liberals and b) didn’t do half as much for ‘white van man’ as the economic growth and improved (if not necessarily efficient) public services Labour was providing.

With the election of Iain Duncan Smith things simply went from bad to worse.  And while his replacement by Michael Howard meant that at least the Party’s salesman was taken seriously again, its product, if anything, proved even harder to change.  The only upsides were accidental and longer-term. By performing so poorly as leader IDS, like Labour’s Michael Foot, may have helped bring the Party to its senses, while his embryonic attempts to get it to take social justice seriously sowed some valuable seeds for the future.  And by not following Hague and Major in stepping down straight after his election defeat in 2005 – and by realising that one more heave was never going to be enough – Michael Howard handed the Party a vital breathing space during which David Cameron and his friends had time not only to win the leadership but to think hard about what they wanted to do with it once it was theirs.

The Tories’ rise in the opinion polls, of course, has an awful lot to do with Labour’s eventual implosion under a flawed politician who should probably never have become Prime Minister in the first place.  But we should not allow this to obscure the achievements of the man who looks likely to replace him in Number Ten.

Cameron hit the ground not so much running as sprinting.  He had the sense to make eye-catching but fairly cost-free changes early, avoided pointless confrontation for the sake of it, and remains firmly in control.  He is in some ways an old-school Tory: he may be economically orthodox and pretty Eurosceptic, he may even wish that the state were a lot smaller, but he pragmatically realises that there are limits in how far a mainstream party in Britain can go in making this country more like the USA.  A true conservative, very much in the mould of Iain Macleod, he goes with the grain of public opinion rather than subscribing to the heroic belief that he can stand out against and even shift it very far.  He hasn’t so much ditched Thatcherism as consigned it, respectfully, to its proper time and place: that was then, as it were, but this is now.

Of course Cameron may not be everyone’s cup of tea – and he’s certainly too much of a toff for some – but he is a brilliant communicator and a very decisive (and, where necessary, even pretty ruthless) CEO.  He is also able to recognise the difference between tactics and strategy: problems with the former rarely distract him from the latter for too long.  And, while he would clearly prefer to keep what I call ‘the party in the media’ onside, Cameron, a former PR man, knows there’s a big difference between public opinion and a newspaper editorial – not something many of his recent predecessors were as aware of as they might have been.

To label Cameron ‘the heir to Blair’ misleading.  True, as the expenses scandal showed us, he is much lighter on his feet than the great clunking fist that is Gordon Brown – an opponent whose character and reputation Cameron set out systematically to destroy even before Labour made the mistake of elevating him to the premiership.  But unlike Blair, he is also a details man: not only does he ‘speak human,’ he also, albeit behind the scenes, ‘does boring’ – though not so much so that he is likely to suffer, as does Brown, from ‘paralysis by analysis.’  The Tories, then, have a leader with some of the qualities needed to make a good, even a great Prime Minister.  Given the interesting times we live in, we’re certainly going to need one.

> Buy the book.


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