John Osullivan

Why aren’t the Tories doing better?

Why aren't the Tories doing better?
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My apologies for responding so tardily to Alex Massie's post of Friday, but it was quite well hidden, maybe prudently so.

He begins by objecting to my assertion on National Review Online that given the failure and unpopularity of Labour, "the Tories [as the main opposition party] ought to be winning easily and by a landslide." This is an unfair critique, he argues, because "it's the failures of the past and that he inherited that make Dave's task so difficult. If 2005 hadn't been such a ghastly failure perhaps the Tories wouldn't need to win an extra 130 seats to win a majority. *In other words, they essentially need a landslide just to win a small victory*."

Well, let me try to unravel the confusions here. To begin with, the Tories need a landslide to win a small victory not because of the 2005 election but because of the anti-Tory bias in the electoral system. In the 2005 election the Tories fell behind Labour in the popular vote by three percentage points but by 158 seats in parliament. The size of the parliamentary majority stacked against them now is in large part an artefact of that systemic bias. It handicapped the party led by Michael Howard in 2005 no less than that led by David Cameron today. And it seems likely that in neither case has the Tory party gained the landslide it needs.

When I wrote the NRO posting on Thursday, the Tories were getting about 33 per cent in most polls-almost exactly where they were on Election Day 2005. In the same piece I predicted that the Tories' share of the vote would probably rise as they gained working-class voters upset by the treatment of Mrs. Duffy. Even so I thought that an increase of less than one per cent in the Tory share of the national vote was a disappointing performance in the light of Labour's manifest failure. I imagine Mr. Massie would agree that an increase of three or four per cent is only slightly less so.

So why has the Tory performance been disappointing? On this point we again differ. Mr. Massie believes - see his argument quoted above - that the reason is the failure of the 2005 Tory campaign which "Dave" and the modernizers "inherited." In one respect I agree: the 2005 Tory campaign was a bigger disaster than the election itself. It consisted largely of dog-whistling to the voters on secondary cultural concerns because the Tories had nothing distinctive to say on the economy and the budget. They even endorsed the fiscal plans of the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, which led to a series of Tory failures, of which the 2005 election loss was merely the first. From whom, however, did Dave inherit this failure? He wrote the 2005 manifesto and, with other modernisers, was a key figure in the campaign. So he inherited the failure that has disabled the post-2005 Tory recovery from, among others, himself. I wonder if Mr. Massie would like to reconsider his argument.

My explanation is somewhat kinder to the Tory leader. I think that the Tory leadership as a group forgot how to manage its "broad Church" coalition. They went from realizing that the base was insufficient for victory to believing that it was an obstacle to victory. In pursuing centrist voters they were insouciant about losing voters to their right. Their desire to demonstrate Tory support for public services led them to embrace Labour's budgetary strategy until shortly after the roof fell in. And they tried only fitfully to integrate their new ideas into the party's tradition and sense of itself. Not only did this approach drive some traditional conservatives into UKIP, but it also gave an impression of inauthenticity and even cynicism. It prevented the Tories from deriving any political benefit from Labour's budgetary implosion. And it may even have prepared the ground for the Lib-Dem surge by validating their brand of politics in advance-but I concede that's a stretch. Mr. Massie thinks that the problem is that the leadership did not pursue the strategy of alienating the base consistently and vigorously enough to convince centrist doubters. We will have to differ.

To support my side of the argument, I compared this relatively weak Tory recovery with the centre-right's recent victory in Hungary. This comparison was justified, I argued, not only because the centre-right Fidesz party had just won a landslide victory over a failed and unpopular socialist government but also because its leader, Viktor Orban, had created the kind of Tory broad Church coalition that used to win elections here.

Mr. Massie accuses me of "being slippery to the point of being dishonest" in making this comparison. His evidence for this charge is as follows:

"O'Sullivan doesn't mention this but I assume he knows that in 2006 Hungary's conservatives actually won a narrow victory in terms of the popular vote and took 164 of the 386 seats in parliament. That is, they were close to victory anyway and consequently in an excellent position to win a sweeping triumph once the government faltered."

Well, I fear that Mr. Massie's facts are not quite right and that his conclusion is wildly wrong. As he says, the Hungarian electoral system is fearsomely complicated - I shall not feel too bad if I am in turn corrected here - but as I read the figures, no party won a majority in the 2006 Hungarian elections. Both major parties hovered around 41-43 per cent in the two voting rounds. When both rounds were taken together, the socialists won an overall but tiny *plurality* over Fidesz. But their coalition had a strong enough lead over Fidesz and its allies in a hung parliament that it was able to stay in power for four years.

Even if Mr. Massie's electoral arithmetic were correct, however, that would not help his argument. For in the recent election Fidesz won 68 per cent of the popular vote and enough parliamentary seats to amend the constitution.

No amount of juggling with arguments about the base figures can make the likely Tory increase of 3 per cent in the popular vote match Fidesz's achievement of a 25 per cent rise. The comparison is a fair one and underlines that the Tories "ought to be winning easily and by a landslide" over this unpopular Labour government and that they are failing to do so.

Mr. Massie's difficulties arise from his apparent conviction that such conclusions could be reached only a doctrinaire opponent of all change within Toryism. I don't recognize myself in such a caricature, but even less do I recognize Cambridge's Professor Andrew Gamble, a shrewd but sympathetic critic of Toryism by academic standards, who also pointed out this weekend that the Tories ought to be worried by their failure to gain more ground.

When the election is won, lost or drawn, they will have to think long and hard about exactly why. One does not need a doctrine to grasp this, merely the power of observation.

In the meantime my suggestion to Mr. Massie is that in future he should respond to what others say and write rather than to what he thinks they privately believe.