Alex Massie

Mainstream vs Liberal Conservatives

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Tim Montgomerie is on maneuvers again and, as tends to be the case when Tim's on patrol, it's worth listening to what he says. At ConservativeHome and in the Times (£) he outlines what he sees as a divide between "Mainstream" and "Liberal" Conservatism. In part this is simply a matter of using the grass-roots to keep the party leadership "honest" and in part it's an attempt to head off any talk of electoral pacts in 2015 that might see the coalition run for a second term. All of which is fine and dandy.

Nevertheless, the divide between Mainstream and Liberal may not be as clear as Tim suggests. For instance, he writes:

Later in this parliament the Tory Party must choose one of two futures: liberal Conservatism or mainstream Conservatism. Both are viable electorally but they are very different. One takes the party away from its grassroots and traditions; the other demonstrates a belief that authentic conservatism is still a potent force.

[...]The vast majority of party members, in contrast, are frustrated with the leadership’s unwillingness to argue for traditional Conservative positions. They want an outright majority, won on the back of a recognisably centre-right manifesto. This would not jettison David Cameron’s political breadth. His emphasis on social justice, conservation and civil liberties would, however, be combined with strong assertions on tax, crime and Europe.

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Meanwhile, Tim also writes (£):

Nearly all the politically necessary moves that followed [Cameron's ascendancy to the leadership], on the NHS, the environment, gay rights, and away from America’s foreign policy orbit, moved the party closer to the Lib Dems. Mr Cameron’s moves to the right, by contrast, have nearly always been tactical and never became sustained campaigns. The pledge to take Tory MEPs out of the federalist European People’s Party was offered when his leadership bid needed more right-wing support. Promises on the Lisbon treaty and inheritance tax were made while Gordon Brown enjoyed his honeymoon bounce in the polls.

This positioning was probably too clever and appeared inauthentic to many voters. Despite the economic circumstances, Mr Brown’s unpopularity and the demoralised, penniless Labour Party, Mr Cameron’s overhaul of the Tory brand did not win a majority.

Or was it because by the time the election was held the worst of the economic crisis has passed (in some respects anyway) and some part of Gordon Brown's negatives were offset by the lingering drag factor of past Tory performances? Most probably some combination of all of it. You can add some voters being scared by Labour's attacks on "Tory cuts" and, for that matter, the fact that Tory economic plans were hastily, and plainly, rewritten once the banks crashed.

"Sharing the proceeds of growth" began as a strength ("We've Changed!") but was then eclipsed by events, forcing a rethink and an "Age of Austerity". The Tories never quite found a way of selling their "Times are tough and will need tough decisions but, look, we're the Optimists!" message. Nor could they quite decide whether to sell cuts as necessary medicine or as a great ideological leap forward. They're both those things but that's a somewhat nuanced message too.

As for tax, crime and Europe. Well the latter is parked and waiting to see what happens both with the coalition and, just as importantly, in Brussels. Crime? "Traditional" Tories may not much like Ken Clarke but it's much too soon to tell whether his ideas survive in recognisable form. Again, a compromise between the liberals and the traditionalists seems most likely. On tax, yes there have been compromises, some forced by the Lib Dems and some by Gordon Brown's legacy but the coalition is cutting corporation tax and raising the threshold at which one begins to pay income tax. That's not a bad start.

I suspect that cutting the top-rate of tax will be done - or at least promised - when the politics of doing so become easier. Add welfare reform, deficit reduction, education reform and, perhaps, localism to the mix and you have a pretty strong set of traditional or mainstream conservative policies being pursued by this government. If "Mainstream Conservatives" choose to ignore this then fine, but the rest of the country seems pretty sure it has a pretty Conservative government.

Reading Tim, and those who agree with him, one sometimes gets the impression that this must be a Liberal Democrat government supported by a handful of Conservative ministers. This is not actually the case. Of course there are some compromises (europe, some aspects of prisons policy, some matters of tax etc) but the Lib Dems have, as many of their members may tell you, given up rather more. (A Good Thing in my book.)  Immigration is but one such example. Whether one agrees with the government or not, its plans for an immigration cap don't come from any liberal textbook.

Tim also makes a great deal of a ConservativeHome survey reporting that 79% of Tory members want a Conservative majority after the next election. This, with respect, seems a Dog Bites Man finding. Much more interesting, surely, is that 16% say they want the coalition to have a second term. That's one in six Tory members. This was the question ConservativeHome asked:

Would you like the Conservatives to govern on their own after the next General Election or in continued partnership with the Liberal Democrats?

Would you like the Conservatives to continue their partnership with the Liberal Democrats after the next General Election or be in opposition?

Anyway, what is a Mainstream Conservative? I know some dispute Cameron's conservative credentials but does that mean Macmillan and Balfour weren't Conservatives too? Wasn't the Iron Lady herself once thought a Manchester Liberal? Does this divide between mainstreamers and liberals really even exist or is it more a matter of emphasis and rhetoric?

Finally, in his ConservativeHome piece Tim also argues that Mainstream Conservatives want "a strong identity for England". This, I suspect, is code for an English parliament. This isn't the place to get into the technicalities of that discussion (though, broadly speaking, I'm not against the idea) so I'll just argue that Tories have traditionally been against such moves, fearing that they might weaken the Union. They may be wrong about this but Cameron is certainly a Unionist and so firmly, on this Big Question at least, a wholly traditional, mainstream Conservative.

UPDATE: See Graeme Archer, also at ConservativeHome, for more.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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