True, Tony Blair bossed his party about. But Blair earned the right to when he won a landslide victory. His message was “if you follow my modernising path, we get mass popular support”. Cameron cannot say this: you have to go back to 1885 to find a Tory Prime Minister who was taken to office with such low electoral support. Crucially, Blair in 1997 had dozens of MPs who knew they won their seats because of the Prime Minister himself: this made them loyal, and biddable. No Blair, no landslide: this was the simple equation that Labour learnt swiftly.
By contrast, many of the new Tory MPs (who make up half of the party) believe they won their seats in spite of the four-month Tory campaign not because of it. I am struck by how many of the successful candidates say that they won because they went rogue, talked up immigration, and disregarded the 'air war' being co-ordinated from London. This makes them less in awe of the leadership. They are supportive, and not in the least mutinous. But, whereas the Blair babes in 1997 ascribed Delphic wisdom to their leadership, the new Tory MPs wish that Mr Cameron will take better advice on both strategy and tactics.
The danger facing the Conservatives now is the classic trap of Westminster politics. To move towards the centre of Westminster opinion is to move to the fringes of popular opinion. The issues being downplayed by the Cameron leadership are ones with mass public support: only a quarter of the population want to keep the Human Rights Act. Lib Dem ideas are not very popular – that’s why Nick Clegg ended up with even fewer seats than in 2005. Keith Joseph distinguished between the “middle ground” of politics and the “common ground” which the Conservative Party seeks to share with the population. Cameron once gave a Keith Joseph lecture where he spoke about this crucial insight. As he said:
“Seeking the middle ground, you define your position according to your opponents – and as a result you lose any connection between your values and your policies.
This is what has happened to Tony Blair ... Heading for the middle ground can mean giving up your principles. Understanding the common ground means staking them out and making them work.”