Peter Hoskin

The coming battle over Mainstream Conservatism

The coming battle over Mainstream Conservatism
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It's not just the students who are waging a political struggle. In yesterday's Times (£), Tim Montgomerie fired up a debate over the future of the Conservative Party that will no doubt simmer through the rest of this Parliament. For those who can't delve behind the paywall, the argument was broadly this: that a tension is emerging between liberal Conservatism and a more traditional Conservatism. On the side of the Liberal Conservatives are those who want to extend the union with Nick Clegg and his party; a group which may well include the Tory leadership. On the other side are those who want the Tories to go it alone after the next election, with a more traditionally Tory policy platform.

Tim calls the latter group the "Mainstream Conservatives," and he has some figures to back him up: according to a ConservativeHome poll, 79 percent of Tory members want their party to govern on its own after 2015, and only 16 percent would prefer coalition with the Lib Dems. To add to that, he has set about defining Mainstream Conservatism in a blog post today. His overarching point: that someone ought to develop and guard this brand of conservatism in time for the next election.

There are many Conservatives who will take umbrage with this, not least because he has nabbed the "mainstream" tag for his side of the debate. But whether you're part of the 79 percent or the 16 percent, it is still a persuasive thesis, worth engaging with. As I put it in a post last July, it can't be denied that many people would prefer to vote according to what separates the Tories and Lib Dems, rather than what binds them together. And if the separation between the two parties closes, as compromise follows compromise, then these voters could be left floating and disaffected.

The question, from the perspective of cynical electoral strategy, is where the mainstream lies. The coverage of Ken Clarke's prisons policy this week suggests that a more "liberal" brand of Conservatism can run against the grain of public opinion. But some Tory strategists would counter that, on the whole, more liberal policies are pushing the Tories towards the centre ground of the electoral bell curve – the ground with the most votes on it. Their point: that Liberal Conservatism is precisely what might be called The Mainstream.

How this will unwind is uncertain – not least because it depends upon unknown electoral outcomes. But unwind it will. By way of a primer for some of the arguments that are hurtling into town, I point CoffeeHousers in the direction of Graeme Archer's piece on all this yesterday, as well as James's article on how George Osborne is creating a new generation of Tory voters. Which just leaves one question: how do you take your Conservatism?

UPDATE: Somehow I missed Alex's thoughtful piece on this before blogging. Read it here.