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Fisking Ian Birrell: He's wrong about Mainstream Conservatism

Tim Montgomerie

I wrote a piece in yesterday's Daily Mail warning against continuing the Lib/Con alliance beyond the next election and, in particular, fighting together in certain or all seats. Ian Birrell has responded in today's FT (£) to my piece and to articles by Mark Pritchard MP and Fraser Nelson. Ian has been close to David Cameron for many years and was briefly a speechwriter for him. I've said before that I wish he was in 10 Downing Street but I'm not at all convinced by today's article. I fisk some of what he says below.

Screen shot 2011-01-05 at 16.34.10 IB: "After weeks of muttering and coded articles, the new year has arrived with hostile outbursts against the coalition from within its ranks."

Not quite. Most concern isn't directed at the Coalition but against turning the Coalition from an emergency arrangement into a more permanent alliance. It's true that the weaknesses of the Coalition are the cause of the opposition to making it permanent but it's important to make a distinction. ConHome surveys of Tory members find that three-quarters support the Coalition but an even greater proportion oppose Coalition candidates at the next election" 

IB: "Leading members of the old guard have joined the fray, sniping from the sidelines over prison reform and control orders."

HOWARD-MICHAEL "Sniping"?!?! You must mean Michael Howard and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Ian? When he was Home Secretary Michael Howard reversed a fifty year growth in crime by incarcerating more repeat offenders. Ken Clarke is putting that record at risk and Howard is rightly defending one of the greatest Conservative policy successes of the post-war era. And Sir Malcolm is Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. If he thinks control orders need to stay he has a duty to say so. Neither are sniping.

IB: "Senior Tory figures [believe] there are few genuine malcontents. “A dozen at most,” said one cabinet minister."

Jonathan Isaby's analysis of Commons rebellions would suggest that 12 is about right in terms of regular "malcontents" but only 24 Tory backbenchers haven't expressed any dissent this Parliament and we're only eight months in. Wait until the Europe Bill and Votes-for-Prisoners Bill comes before the House.

IB: "The Tories have won the economic argument over the need for cuts and feel boosted by Labour leader Ed Miliband’s hesitant start."

We agree on that!

IB: "Discussion of the coalition’s role at the next election is inevitable, given that politics is in such flux. But Disraeli can rest easy in his grave: the Conservative party is not threatened by extinction just yet as some of its more voluble internal critics suggest. The assumption among senior Tories is that the two parties will fight the next election on separate platforms, but the tone of debate will be politer than at previous polls."

BOLES-COLOUR I honestly hope you are right on this Ian and Nick Clegg appears to rule out a continuing alliance today. But Mr Clegg has been known to u-turn, however, and faced with oblivion at the polls he may yet u-turn on this. There are good reasons for Tory activists to worry about the noises from our own side. Nick Boles MP, very close to Francis Maude (one of Project Cameron's top five architects), has advocated a continuing alliance (and did so again on Monday). Sir John Major, who Cameron has used as a spokesman before, has suggested it continuing. And the impression that the Tory leadership is plotting something secret grew after we learnt that Conservative members of the Cabinet discussed how to help the Lib Dem candidate in Old&Sad.

IB: "The backlash reveals many Conservatives have still failed to heed the lessons of the past. The overwhelming issue at the moment is the economy followed by public services, but still some figures on the right harp on about Europe and immigration, the very issues that made floating voters wary at elections in the past decade-and-a-half."

Immigration is actually the number two or three issue for voters but the economy is obviously the most important purpose of this government and that is why 75% of the much caricatured but consistently wise Tory grassroots members agreed that they would "be content if the Coalition gets Britain's deficit and economy fixed (anything else is a bonus)". Also, I don't buy the idea that immigration and Europe were problems for the Conservative Party in themselves. The problem was that we talked too much about them and too little about schools, hospitals and other kitchen table concerns. The shields that crown ConHome (© Pre-Cameron) were designed to represent the breadth that was lacking in Conservatism in 2001 and '05.

IB: "At the last election, the electorate got the result it wanted with exquisitely precise arithmetic. Voters wanted rid of Gordon Brown, but did not fully trust the Conservatives, especially on public services. Strenuous efforts to “detoxify” the Tory brand failed to pay off – and a Lib Dem “brake” was imposed in government."

Was it really true that more detoxification would have delivered victory? I'd like to see the evidence for that. I think we lost the election because we had attempted to change rather than broaden our appeal - risking making the Party look like a PR exercise... because we gave the Lib Dems by-election status by agreeing to the debates... because we talked about the Big Society rather than retail policies like the Cancer Care guarantee... and because we were evasive about how we'd cut the deficit Labour was able to run scare stories. More here!

IB: "The biggest concern for the Tories is not an excess of liberalism in government. It is that the government has to present progressive measures as concessions to the Lib Dems following their meltdown in opinion polls."

CAMERON COLOUR Agreed. In June I wrote: "Credit for the progressive dimensions of the Government’s record – including welfare reform and investment in overseas aid – will be claimed by Clegg. By not ruling on his own David Cameron lost an opportunity to prove that the compassionate conservatism that has been blossoming within the party for many years is real."

IB: "The alliance between Mr Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith was vital for ensuring welfare reform was not stymied by lack of cash."

Again, agreed but Clegg hasn't always been on the side of reform. He blocked, for example, direct funding for schools and has also been - with Vince - resisting key elements of an economic growth agenda.

IB: "The decontamination of the Tory brand remains the central issue for the party – not its death."

The central issue? More important than economic competence, party unity and occupying the whole political stage (ie talking about crime, immigration and Europe as well as the environment, well-being and childcare)? I support building a more compassionate Conservative Party (I co-founded the Centre for Social Justice). I support where Cameron has taken the party on gay rights. I agree with him on international development (where I know you don't Ian!) and on family-friendlier policies. I could go on. The issue is not change or no change. It's about combining familiar conservatism with more modern conservatism. We're all modernisers now (a few ConHome commenters excepted). It's always been about how we modernise. Liberal Conservatism by excluding traditionalists is the narrow creed. Mainstream Conservatism is the broader offering.


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