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If Cameron's popularity is achieved at the expense of his Party, the latter can't be Built To Last

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 11.29.30A survey by Lord Ashcroft recently found David Cameron to be less popular than his Party.  A survey by YouGov has found the opposite, and Peter Kellner writes about it in the Telegraph today.  But whatever the public opinion may be, we can all agree that exercises such as these, which are scarcely new, set the leader against his Party through the simple means of contrasting them.

However, there is a more literal and recent sense in which the one is set against the other.  A core part of the New Labour doctrine was to set Tony Blair against his Party to improve the political prospects of both.  The Tory uber-modernisers, for want of a better term, have consistently sought to graft the belief on to the Conservative Party since its defeat in 1997.

It may well be that, in the short-term, the gambit will work for both David Cameron and the Party in 2015 - that both will once again be in government after the election.  But what does the uber- modernising dogma imply for the Party itself in the medium and long term?  Is its role merely to be a permanent stepping stone on which its leaders ascend to higher things?

One can argue that Cameron himself has taken his cue from the ultra-modernisers - for example, by asserting that he is the "heir to Blair".  Or one can counter that, rather, he is a very traditional Tory in background, character, disposition and attitude - hence his lingering attachment to the idea of Big Society.

What cannot be disputed, though, is that little has been done to revive the Party itself as an institution under his leadership.  Membership is costly.  (£25 is no small sum for some people.)  Party Conference is more so, and has become a venue for lobbyists rather than party members, who dominate parts of the fringe. One councillor is planning to sleep in a car to save money.

The leadership is cautiously experimenting with closed sessions at conference, but the event as a whole plays no part in policy-making, and has little impact on it.  The revival represented by the Conservative Policy Forum is welcome, but Ministers are free to reject the suggestions of its groups entirely, if they wish.

The Party's online presence and use of social media is creaky, though Grant Shapps is trying to bring it more up to date.  I am all for open primaries or meeting for selecting candidates if local Associations want them, but the push for them during the last Parliament threatened to deprive members of one of their last privileges: choosing their Parliamentary candidate.

Perhaps membership itself is an outdated concept.  Maybe the Party should be signing up registered supporters for free.  But whatever the future may hold, the recent past has been bleak.  Membership is perhaps 120,000; UKIP's, maybe, is 20,000 or so.  The gap between the two is scarcely a gulf.

Arguably, the Party has been marginalised as an institution since the Hague/Norman reforms.  But it is indisputable that the uber-modernising view has influenced the leadership from time to time - and, worse, been seen to influence it, which was precisely why the claim that a senior figure had called Party members "mad, swivel-eyed loons" got such traction.

In opposition, Cameron issued a statement of values called Built to Last.  But the Party itself will not be built to last if the ultra-modernising view wins out.  And there is no certainty that anything which might replace it would be a more effective vehicle for the centre-right. ConservativeHome will return to the theme of Party reform during the coming months.


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