Alex Massie

Why Aren’t the Tories Winning Easily? Because of 2001 and 2005. That’s Why.

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In the midst of a piece asking where disillusioned Labour supporters will go - apparently UKIP will be a beneficiary  - John O'Sullivan writes:

That said, the main underlying truth of this campaign — freshened up by this latest development — is that the Tories ought to be winning easily and by a landslide. That is what has happened in other countries where a Left government has collapsed as completely as Labour. Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary has just won more than two-thirds of the popular vote and the right to redraw the country’s post-communist constitution in exactly these circumstances. Orban in fact has just re-fashioned Hungary’s fractious opposition into a broad conservative coalition on the British Tory model by uniting patriotic, free-market, and social conservatives under a single standard — at exactly the moment when the Tories had broken up their own original and successful coalition in pursuit of “progressive” voters with many other places to go.

In other words, the deck is stacked against Cameron. The assumption that an unreformed conservatism could prevail in Britain is questionable at best. After all, how did the Tories do in 2001 and 2005? Perhaps conditions were trickyfor them then but while that's true it's also the case that the public has shown precious little enthusiasm for that kind of Toryism.

Indeed, 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. That's what Cameron inherited and his critics might care to remember the abject failure of their kind of Toryism. If three thumping defeats don't demonstrate that the Tories "own original and successful coalition" has disappeared then I don't know what does.

Equally, O'Sullivan's* comparison with Hungary is slippery to the point of being dishonest. True, the conservatives have won big in Hungary but Britain is not Hungary and even if it were a bit like Hungary the situations are entirely different. 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.

In other words, the Hungarian conservatives and British Tories found themselves in completely different places and so to suggest that the former show the latter how to win is, well, eccentric to the point of being useless.

Sure, you look at Gordon Brown and his record and you think he must be due a kicking. All the signs are that this will indeed be delivered. But that doesn't mean that the public has to flock to the Tory banner with any great enthusiasm. To the extent that the public remains wary of Cameron it's because they're not actually sure the party has changed sufficiently.

Cameron's error, then, is that he hasn't actually beaten - publicly anyway - his party. In retrospect I'm not sure leaving the EPP was a sensible move. No-one even pretends to care about the european parliament but the message Dave sent was that he was appeasing, not confronting, his party's right-wing. That may have been forced upon him and he may have thought ths a trivial bone in which no-one else could possibly be interested but this small move has caused a surprising rumpus and done Cameron few real favours except in as much as it's kept the right reasonably quiet. But at a price.

So the problem with Cameronism - apart from being ill-equipped for a time of economic hardship - may be that the Cameronian Revolution is incomplete, not that it's gone too far or been a terrible, unecessary blunder in the first place. Is it for real? Many voters are not sure. Hence the "Same old Tories" attack that has had some effect.

Nevertheless, Cameron was right to appreciate that something had to change. But it's sometimes forgotten how unlikely his triumph was and how reluctantly much of the party has gone along with him. The party dimly appreciated that something had to change but it never quite, I think, appreciated how much and how complete that change would have to be for the good times to come rolling back. Hence, in the end, the ambiguity that has helped hinder Project Dave.

And, as I say, by ignoring depths to which the Tories sank, Dave's traditionalist critics can have it both ways: Cameron is damned for not winning a thumping majority but if he did win one then we'd hear that all this renewal and reform and change stuff wasn't at all necessary.

*Previous Massie vs O'Sullivan dust-ups here and here.

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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