Walking back to the Palace of Westminster the other day, I bumped into a new Tory MP. He was eager to tell me what the Chancellor should do in the Budget: abolish the 50p rate, scrap labour market protections for young workers and announce the building of another airport. But by the time we had reached the entrance to the Commons, this enthusiasm had given way to melancholy.
It wasn’t the Liberal Democrats, though, who were spoiling his mood. It was the leadership of his own party. As we arrived at the entrance to the Commons, his voice dropped as he recalled a presentation from the Prime Minister and his political team to all Tory MPs last month. ‘It was all this modernising stuff,’ he said, disdainfully.
This MP was right about one thing: modernisation is what drives the Tory leadership’s approach to government. As one influential figure put it to me this week, ‘modernisation means one thing — winning a majority’. Indeed, those close to the leadership express amusement that so many people still attack ‘modernisation’. They joke that their critics want a deliberately ‘un-modern’ party.
To understand Tory modernisation you need to grasp that it is the product of two traumatic defeats: the 1997 general election and the 2001 Tory leadership contest. These events have influenced the Cameron project as much as Labour’s loss in 1992 did the Blair one. Indeed, it is an under-appreciated fact that nearly all modern political projects are borne out of failure.
Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997, and the delight that greeted it, was a painful demonstration to those who became modernisers of how toxic the Tory brand had become. To lose was one thing, but to secure your lowest share of the vote since 1832 was quite another. It made them question the style in which the party had governed for the past 18 years.
Perhaps even more painful than this defeat was Michael Portillo’s loss in the 2001 leadership election. This made many of them doubt whether the party even wanted to regain power.
These experiences shape how the Cameroons approach politics today. They fear anything that could retoxify the brand. Ask almost anyone in Downing Street about the 50p tax rate and they’ll admit that it is bad for the economy. In the next sentence, though, they’ll say that it is very difficult to do anything about it for political reasons. Indeed, those close to the Prime Minister say that he fears that if the Budget reduces the 50p rate that is all it will be remembered for, which would reinforce the Tories’ reputation as the party of the rich. Intriguingly, the Chancellor is keener than the Prime Minister to do something about it. But, being a moderniser, he still wants appropriate covering fire in place if he is to move against it.
Another defining feature of the Cameron leadership is its impatience with internal dissent. This is, in large part, a reaction to Portillo’s defeat. When it was suggested to one moderniser that they should tread carefully with a particular group of Tory MPs, he replied ‘these are the idiots responsible for giving us Iain Duncan Smith’.
At first glance, it seems odd — if not bizarre — that an internal party election 11 years ago still has such a grip on the modernising consciousness. But we must remember that pretty much the first decision that David Cameron and George Osborne took as MPs was to back Portillo for the leadership; they shared the view that he was the one who got why they had lost so badly in 1997 and 2001. He understood that the party was, as he said at the launch of his campaign, ‘in grave peril, in grave danger of what may happen next’.
That the party then rejected him was seen by many modernisers as both an offence against the natural order of things and as proof that the party was no longer serious about power. It made many of them consider quitting politics. Instead, they decided to try and retake the party. They set up a think-tank, Policy Exchange, whose tenth anniversary is this week, and a political unit called C-Change.
When Cameron launched his leadership bid four years later, he did so not as Portillo had at a swanky London restaurant but at the offices of Policy Exchange. The modernisers had built themselves a movement.
But once Cameron had won, the modernisers faced a question to which they have never quite found an answer: what were they for? Were they about presenting classic Tory arguments in a modern way or was their aim to make an accommodation with the political settlement of the day? It is telling that C-Change, the political wing of the modernising movement, closed down soon after Cameron had become leader. The most important distinction in the Conservative party today is between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ modernisers.
In government, this tension about what modernisation is about is apparent. Much of Steve Hilton’s frustration stems from the fact that the radical Tory measures he proposed kept being blocked for political reasons.
Soft and hard modernisers agree on a host of things. They, for instance, accept the importance of having a more diverse mix of candidates. They are also keen to reach out to groups that haven’t previously voted Tory: both sets of modernisers support gay marriage, for example.
Where they disagree is on how much the centre can be moved now that the party is in government. The hard modernisers believe that the best way to show that the Tories care about public services is to improve them through reform. For their part, the soft modernisers worry more about getting on the wrong side of public sector bodies. It was the soft modernisers who pushed for the ‘pause’ in the NHS reforms while the hard modernisers feared that it gave too much power to the BMA et al. This week, two hard modernising ministers described ‘the pause’ to me as the government’s single biggest mistake.
In this struggle for the Tory soul, the hard modernisers have one huge advantage: the new Tory MPs. These MPs are extremely receptive to their agenda. The Free Enterprise Group, which includes much of the talent of the intake, is aggressively hard modernising; seeking to apply Tory thinking to traditionally left-wing subjects like childcare.
Ultimately, it is the hard modernising agenda that is most likely to deliver an intellectually confident Tory party that is at ease with itself and the country. It is that kind of party that is most likely to deliver that elusive Tory majority.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 10, 2012Tags: Politics