There are many drawbacks of Coalition government but there is one enormous advantage.
At the next election – for the first time since World War II – the government will not be up for re-election. Neither of the two parties in the current government can run away from what the Coalition has achieved or failed to achieve but both parties can credibly say that people haven’t had a Conservative or Liberal Democrat government. As one of the two bigger parties in British politics this opportunity is obviously more important for the Conservatives than the Lib Dems. David Cameron will be able to appear before the British electorate and urge them to give him the chance to govern alone for the first time.
David Cameron’s team should prepare carefully for this coalition caterpillar to Tory butterfly moment. It is an opportunity for a fundamental relaunch. An opportunity to describe how a Conservative-only government will be superior to continuing coalition government and to the Labour alternative. The relaunch needs to convey strength. Strength to deliver the bold economic reforms Britain needs and strength to protect Britain’s social contract. Stronger than coalition government with all of its inherent tensions and stronger than a Labour government led by Ed Miliband. Getting this butterfly moment right – making it a big event – is huge for the Conservative chances at the next election.
The images in the opposite column illustrate how it might be done.
Modernisation is an ugly word in some Tory minds but any student of recent Tory election results cannot credibly argue that the Conservative Party doesn’t need to change. The real choice isn’t between those who want change and those who don’t but between different kinds of modernisers and the scale of modernisation that might still be necessary. This ConservativeHome Majority Project argues that modernisation is at best half done. We added 4% to our share of the vote at the last election and we need to add at least another 4% at the next in order to be sure of winning a majority.
We argue that modernisation up until now has had four serious flaws.
David Cameron pursued the
David Cameron got certain big calls right from the beginning of his leadership. The wisest decision was to convince voters that the NHS was as special to the Conservative Party as it was to the wider public. Some of us were wrong to believe that it was politically tenable to detoxify the party on the NHS without making the commitment that the David Cameron and George Osborne did make to maintain real spending on the Department of Health budget. But if Mr Cameron was right about the NHS he got one other big call very wrong. He and his strategists decided that the party’s problem was that it was too right-wing. In reality a lot more than half of the population hold so-called right-wing views on immigration, crime, Europe, tax and welfare.
Research by YouGov for Policy Exchange found that large majorities of voters in the North of England also hold very conservative views on these issues. The Tory problem – in the North and in other political battlegrounds - was and is different. We aren’t seen as too right-wing but, to put it crudely, too rich. We are seen by too many floating voters as a party of better off, successful people, in it for ourselves. Too many people thought we'd leave them - or people they worried about - on their own in tough times. This problem was not only not addressed during the 2005 to 2010 period it was made worse in some respects. We said quality of life rather than standard of living mattered most (fine to say if you have a high income).
We focused on impossible climate change goals with implications for the household electricity bill and the family's annual holiday in the sun. We opposed CCTV when people on crime-ridden estates saw it as part of the war on anti-social behaviour. The next phase of modernisation should be both blue (reasserting traditional Tory values more confidently) but also more blue collar (targeting tax cuts on the low-paid and focused on cost of living pressures).
Modernisation was never balanced
We should have pursued a broad, balanced conservatism that took our core supporters with us as we added new floating voters. The party that will win the next election will walk and chew gum at the same time. It will be Eurosceptic and concerned about the local environment. It will be committed to border control and to the NHS. It will want to send more repeat offenders to jail and it will want to rehabilitate them while they are there. It will want to get able-bodied people off benefits altogether and increase benefits for low income pensioners. In other words the party that advances won't be focused on the centre ground but on the common ground. It won't be camped in the middle of the stage but hungrily, ambitiously camped right across it. The Cameroon modernisers consistently took our base voters for granted - ignoring warnings that they were doing so. The dangerous leakage to UKIP is the result. Cameron has divided the Right. If he doesn’t correct it, it could be his longest lasting legacy.
The modernisation that was pursued was shallow
The modernisation that has been pursued has been shallow. Climate change was supposedly the greatest challenge of our age but since becoming Prime Minister David Cameron hasn’t made one speech on it. The NHS had, he said, had enough of top-down re-organisations but was then… top-down reorganised. There was a promise to deliver one-third of ministerial positions to women but instead some very average men have been kept on the frontbench while new talent is denied promotion. Gay marriage is announced but never fought for.
Modernisers neglected the economy
At the beginning of David Cameron’s time in office it was almost as if economics had been disinvented. Britain and the world were still enjoying the long boom. Gordon Brown even boasted that he had abolished boom and bust. The party was entirely focused on mending Britain’s ‘broken society’. When it came to the economy there were only two arguments. Argument one was about “sharing the proceeds of growth”. How much should go to tax cuts and how much to even higher spending. The second argument concerned the desirability of growth. David Cameron promoted General Well Being over GDP as a better way of thinking of progress. Once the financial crash happened in 2008 the Tory leadership was quick to lead the world in identifying excessive borrowing and debt as central political and economic issues. It is still unclear, however, whether the Tory leadership and centre right think tanks have made a bold enough leap towards the kind of wider new economic thinking that is necessary.
The next phase of modernisation needs to be at least as deep as that which went before but it also must be different. Focused on bold economic reforms. Focused on the striving classes. Focused on a fusion between the best of traditional and new Tory thinking. Focused on a long-term refashioning of the Tory brand rather than short-term positioning.