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The strange rebirth of Tory England

Andrew Gamble
p. 15-34


The Conservative party’s long dominance of British politics was overturned after 1992. The party suffered three consecutive election defeats, the first time this had happened in the modern era, and it seemed to lack the capacity to recover. After the 2005 defeat, however, the party under David Cameron has begun to seize back the political initiative from Labour. Cameron’s leadership is assessed against the background of the long Conservative hegemony, and the undermining of the five key pillars of that hegemony – Union, Empire, Public Service, Property, and Welfare. Cameron is seeking to make the Conservatives electable again by breaking with many of the Thatcherite policies with which the party has been associated, drawing predictable criticism from elements of the Conservative Right. This strategy has had a number of successes, and although many obstacles remain, the Conservatives are once more back in contention in a way they have not been since 1992.

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  • 1  Wheatcroft G., The Strange Death of Tory England, London, Allen Lane, 2005.
  • 2  Dangerfield R.F., The Strange Death of Liberal England, London, Constable, 1936.
  • 3  Other books with similar themes include Gilmour I. & Garnett M., Whatever happened to the Tories : (...)

1Shortly after the Conservative party’s third consecutive election defeat in 2005, Geoffrey Wheatcroft published his book The Strange Death of Tory England.1The title echoed the earlier account of the demise of the Liberal party, written by R.F.Dangerfield in the 1930s,2 chronicling the events before 1914 which brought about the end of the Liberal era in British politics. Wheatcroft’s intention in his book was to suggest that similar forces might be driving the Conservatives to extinction, or at least to the kind of twilight existence on the margins of British politics in which the Liberals had been obliged to live for much of the last eighty years. His book written with a journalist’s eye for detail covers the events and the personalities which marked the era of some of the Conservatives’ greatest triumphs followed by some of their greatest disasters.3

  • 4  Seldon A. & Ball S. (eds), Conservative Century : The Conservative Party since 1900, Oxford, Oxfor (...)
  • 5  Margetts H. & Smyth G. (eds), Turing Japanese ? Britain with a permanent party of government, Lond (...)

2By Liberal England Dangerfield was thinking not just of the Liberal Governments after 1906 which ended a long period of Conservative rule, but also of the Liberal dominance of the British politics in the second half of the nineteenth century, following the great Tory schism over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, which had confirmed the political dominance of industry and the cities over agriculture and the countryside. By Tory England Wheatcroft was thinking not just of the Thatcher Governments after 1979, but also of the dominance which the Conservatives had exercised over British politics since 1916. No Labour Government had served two consecutive full parliamentary terms before 1997. The Conservatives had served three terms between 1951 and 1964, and four between 1979 and 1997. So dominant had the Conservatives become that books with titles such as ‘The Conservative Century’ were published in the 1990s,4 and after the rather unexpected fourth Conservative election victory in 1992, there was even speculation that the British were turning Japanese, and a dominant party system was emerging, with permanent rule by one party.5

3 All that changed after 1992. The party appeared to fall off a cliff, and go into a long-term decline. The party suffered a major election defeat in 1997, but even more telling was that shortly after the election in 1992 (in which the Conservatives won 42 per cent of the vote), the party’s maximum opinion poll hardly ever exceeded 30-32 per cent, and for long periods was well below that, hitting 20 per cent in December 1994. The party had low poll ratings for the next thirteen years. For the first time in its history the Conservatives appeared stuck in a groove, and unable to escape. In electoral terms this was much the worst performance they had managed since the advent of majoritarian democracy in 1885. After every other previous major defeat, in 1906, in 1945, in 1966 and in 1974, the party had bounced back quickly and had either won the next election outright (as in 1970 and 1979) or run the governing party very close (as in 1910 and 1950). The inability of the Conservatives to do this after 1997, and indeed their inability to make any serious inroad into support for the Labour Government, was reflected in a rapid turnover of leaders. Tony Blair has now faced five different Conservative leaders in the twelve years since 1994, while Margaret Thatcher only managed to get through four Labour leaders in fifteen years.

  • 6  Whiteley P., Seyd P. & Richardson J., True Blues : the politics of Conservative party membership, (...)

4The plight of the party has also been evident in the steady decline in its membership, and the increasing age of those that remain,6 leading to some speculation that Conservative constituency associations would gradually become extinct as their members died. Related to this the party’s strength, particularly in terms of parliamentary seats but also in terms of voters, has become highly skewed. The party has weak or no representation in many parts of the UK, including Scotland, Wales and much of northern urban England, and in some of these areas the party’s decline may have gone beyond the point where recovery is possible.

5A third major problem for the Conservatives was the image the party had acquired, mainly in the 1990s, but also retrospectively from memories of the 1980s as well. The party had appeared extremely disunited, as a result of fighting a long and debilitating civil war over Britain’s relationship to the EU. There had been a succession of scandals, many of them quite trivial in themselves, but in two cases, leading members of the party had been jailed for perjury. Most seriously of all the party had become associated with some unpopular policies. Persistent under-investment in public services had left many of them in a poor condition by the end of the 1990s, and following Britain’s forced exit from the ERM in 1992, the Conservatives lost their reputation for economic competence, a little unfairly since their management of the economy between 1992 and 1997 showed better results than at any time since 1979.

6Despite these problems it took a long time for the Conservatives to take their position seriously. Many in the party appeared to adopt the attitude of the Tsar, who when asked by the British Ambassador a month before the February Revolution whether he should not take some urgent steps to regain his people’s confidence, famously replied : ‘Do you mean that I should regain my people’s confidence, or that they should regain my confidence ?’ For many Conservatives the triumphs of Thatcherism, and the important electoral and political defeats inflicted on the Labour party and on the Labour movement during the 1980s, were still fresh. So too was the end of the cold war, and the collapse of state socialism across Europe, and with it the discrediting of socialism as an alternative to liberal capitalism. Many did not see why the Conservative party had to adjust to a new political climate, when it was the Conservative party that had triumphed so spectacularly – ideologically, electorally and politically. Many in the party were in no mood to make concessions, and this became an important factor in the downward slide in the party’s fortunes and its inability to recover. Faced by Tony Blair the Conservatives were at a loss for a long time as to how to attack him and discredit him. His hold and that of Labour over the electorate seemed for a time unbreakable.

7In 2005, however, after the third defeat, things began to change, and the first signs have begun to appear that the Conservative party may not be so moribund as some supposed. A strange rebirth of the party is taking place, under the leadership of David Cameron. His election in December 2005 took many by surprise. He was given little chance at the beginning of the contest, when the Conservatives looked set to elect David Davis, a leader in the same mould as William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, and someone who would have pursued the same strategy. Aided by some good fortune and also by some skilled media management, the Cameron campaign picked up momentum, particularly after Cameron’s speech at the party conference in October.

8The opportunity which Cameron and the group of younger Conservatives around him identified, was one already explored by Michael Portillo, a defeated leadership contender in 2001. It recognised the protean nature of Conservatism in England, and how it was made up of many different interwoven strands. A party with such a rich and ambiguous tradition as the Conservatives could always be reinvented by a new leadership, if it chose to downplay certain aspects of the party’s heritage and accentuate others. The main obstacles to doing this in the immediate past have been Tony Blair, who many Tories, including many in the Cameron camp, have long regarded with a mixture of fear and reluctant admiration as a political magician, who has bewitched a large part of the traditional Conservative vote in England, and broken the natural order of things. Blair has been in many respects a cross-party figure, not closely identified with Labour, and in certain key respects above the party battle. This has made it particularly hard for the Conservatives to fight him. A second obstacle has been the Thatcherite legacy, which has hung over the party, and prevented new thinking. The urge to defend and celebrate the reforms of the Thatcher decade and to press for policies that would extend the Thatcherite revolution into new territory has been very strong, and no leader before Cameron has been strong enough to chart a radically new direction for the party.

9In his first six months as leader David Cameron has revitalised the Conservatives, and has begun to turn them into an effective opposition. He has committed himself to very few specific policies, concentrating instead on effecting a major cultural transformation of the party. He has been rewarded by a great deal of media attention, and by an uplift in the party’s poll ratings. The idea that he is a future Prime Minister has gained support. The Conservatives are no longer spoken of as a dying party. Suddenly it is almost fashionable for people to be Conservatives again. Yet there remain a number of problems with the Cameron leadership, and it has some way to go before it can claim success. There is firstly the question of party unity. Cameron has enjoyed a long honeymoon with his party, but he is taking some big risks, and offending many of the traditional core Conservative voters by the liberal positions he constantly adopts. If he continues to be successful in winning votes, then as with Labour under Tony Blair his party may fall into line. But if he falters there may be a backlash in the party against him.

10 A second problem is policy. Rather than commit himself and the party to new policies immediately Cameron has deferred the decisions for eighteen months by setting up policy commissions to consult and report back. This tactic has won him time, and averts internal rows, but it cannot be continued indefinitely, and on a host of issues, such as civil nuclear power, the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent, immigration, and tax policy the party will have to take up clear positions in advance of the next election. The problem for Cameron is to choose a set of policies that do not remind voters of the old Conservative party they came to dislike so much ; at the same time he has to demonstrate that the new policies he adopts are credible.

11A third problem is the electorate. There are encouraging signs. The party has moved ahead of Labour and has remained ahead in most polls throughout 2006. The Conservative share of the vote has hovered in the range 38-40, a far better performance than anything since 1992. It is still not however a really impressive performance. Previous oppositions have generally been much further ahead, especially when the Government has been so unpopular. The succession of scandals and blunders that have afflicted the Labour Government in the last nine months would normally have seen the ratings of the opposition under a popular new leader soaring to 50 per cent and above, and a lead over the opposition of twenty or thirty percentage points. This happened to Labour under Tony Blair in 1994-7, it happened to Labour under Neil Kinnock in 1988-90, and it happened to the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher in 1976-7. But it has not so far happened to the Conservatives under Cameron. The highest lead they have so far achieved over Labour is 7 per cent.7 The party did achieve 40 per cent in local elections in England, but the result while good was still within the lower range of expectations. The party has also not done well in by-elections, most surprisingly almost losing a safe seat in Bromley to the Liberal Democrats. The undoubted personal popularity of Cameron has not yet translated into a surge of support for the Conservatives. Some on the right of the party, such as Norman Tebbit have been quick to argue that part of the core Conservative vote is staying at home, put off by Cameron’s pandering to fashionable liberal opinion, without any compensating increase in support from centrist voters.

12 A final problem is the Labour Government. Labour has been losing support, trust and credibility since the decision to join the United States in invading Iraq in 2003, but Labour’s poll figures remain surprisingly buoyant, still above 30 per cent. The Conservatives cannot count on Labour self-destructing, and since the long expected handover from Blair to Brown will take place in the next twelve months, there is still a chance, although a dwindling one, that Labour might be able to renew itself in office and recover its ascendancy, as happened for a brief period for the Conservatives after John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher in 1990. One reason why the Government has not lost more support than it has is the strength of the economy ; remarkably over nine years inflation has remained low, employment high, and growth steady. There is not the same intensity of dissatisfaction with the Government which occurred in the past when the economy performed badly, living standards were hit, and the Government was blamed.

The Conservative Hegemony

  • 8  Blake TR., The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher, London, Methuen, 1985.

13 To understand the political context in which the Cameron leadership is operating requires an appreciation of why the Conservatives were dominant for so long in British politics. Britain was after all unpromising terrain for a party of the right. The rural population declined much earlier than in many other European countries, because of the growth of industry and the new urban areas. In the nineteenth century there was considerable fear among the political class of the consequences of extending the suffrage to the new urban masses, because of what they might do with it, and many Conservatives, including the Marquess of Salisbury, were bitter opponents of the reforms sponsored by Gladstone and Disraeli which opened the way to mass democracy.8

  • 9  Engels complained that the workers had discredited themselves again terribly. See McKenzie R.T. & (...)

14 Yet despite Conservative fears and radical hopes, the new political context of mass democracy was one which the Conservatives found congenial. After 1885 they succeeded in becoming the most successful political party in this new democracy, sidelining the Liberals, and triumphing repeatedly over Labour. The willingness of British workers to vote for the Conservatives was already noted (and deplored) by Engels.9 But this tendency did not diminish even after universal franchise had been conceded in 1918 and 1928. Between 1916 and 1997 the Conservatives were in office for 61 out of 81 years, or 75 per cent of the time. Between 1945 and 1997 the Conservatives were in Government for 32 out of 52 years, or 67 per cent of the time. Within this period the Conservatives have enjoyed long continuous periods when they were either the dominant party in a coalition or governed alone for more than ten years – 1931-45, 1951-64, 1979-97.

15In the nineteenth century the old Tory party had represented hereditary privilege, the landed interest, and the established institutions of England - the Monarchy, the Aristocracy, the Church, the Law, the Universities, the Army and the Navy. Although the party had under both Pitt and later Liverpool and Canning championed free trade and economic liberalism, the party refused to support Peel in his bid to repeal the Corn Laws. That decision appeared to condemn the party to a marginal role in British politics, ceding the initiative to the Liberals and to Peelites like Gladstone, who now became part of the new governing majority. The Tories were rescued from this position by Disraeli, who had been one of the fiercest opponents of Peel in 1846, but from the 1860s onwards managed to position the party to take advantage of the widening franchise and the expansion of empire. Crucial for this, which Disraeli first articulated, and which his successors developed, was an appreciation that a modern Conservative party had to find ways to appeal to the industrial working class, since it could not rely on the votes of the propertied classes, the rural classes, or even the burgeoning middle classes. Half of its votes had to come from the working class if it was ever to form governments in the Britain that had developed by the end of the nineteenth century.

16 The Conservatives may have dominated the twentieth century, but the circumstances were not particularly favourable. For much of the time they had to preside over imperial retreat and relative economic decline. Yet despite this they succeeded in containing the Labour party and the Labour movement, and more often than not defeating them. The breakthrough which Labour made in 1945 when they secured an electoral landslide and achieved their first ever majority government, proved shortlived. The Conservatives were back in Government in 1951, and remained for thirteen years.

  • 10  Bulpitt J., ‘The Discipline of the New Democracy : Mrs Thatcher’s Domestic Statecraft’, Political (...)
  • 11  Gilmour I., Dancing with Dogma: Britain under Thatcher, London, Simon & Schuster, 1992.

17 Many explanations have been offered for Conservative success. They include the natural deference of the British people to authority, birth, and wealth ; the divisions among their opponents ; and fortuitous events such as Irish separation in the 1920s and the two world wars, which worked to Conservative advantage, and gave the Conservatives advantages they were happy to exploit. All of these have some merit, but still more important has been a distinctive Tory statecraft, which has involved a command and understanding of the British state.10 The Conservatives for all the anti-statist rhetoric of recent times, have always regarded themselves as an instrument of the British state, and their appeal and their long hegemony have been based on five key pillars, Union, Empire, Public Service, Property and Welfare. Conservative decline and the situation they found themselves in by 2000 can be attributed to the slackening of the party’s commitment to this statecraft, which in part was due to the ineptitude of its leaders, but more fundamentally to the changing circumstances which undermined the old bases of Conservative hegemony. In part this was Margaret Thatcher’s legacy to the Conservatives. In the view of some she hollowed out the party, and destroyed its traditional strategy and appeal.11 But many of these trends began before Margaret Thatcher, and she was only in part the author of them.


  • 12  Lynch P.,The Politics of Nationhood: Sovereignty, Britishness and Conservative Politics, London, M (...)
  • 13  Heffer S., Nor Shall My Sword : the reinvention of England, London, Weidenfeld, 1999.

18 A key plank in the modern politics of the Conservative party has been the Union between Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland which underpins the United Kingdom and the institutions of the British state.12 The Conservatives have been implacable Unionists, even changing their name at the beginning of the twentieth century to emphasise how important the Union was to them. But in the last fifty years the basis of this style of Unionist politics has been severely undermined., particularly as a result of events in Northern Ireland and in Scotland. The renewal of disorder in Northern Ireland, and the suspension of the Stormont Parliament and the imposition of direct rule in 1971 by a Conservative Government, sundered the parliamentary alliance between the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists. It has never been restored. If Edward Heath had still been able to count on Ulster Unionist votes he would not have lost office in 1974. In Scotland, the Conservatives were once a significant force. In 1956 they won 50 per cent of the Scottish vote and 50 per cent of the Scottish seats. By 1997 however the Conservatives were not able to win a single seat in Scotland, and their vote and support had drastically diminished. It was hard to continue to proclaim themselves a Unionist party, when they had so little support in one of the most important components of the Union. The Conservatives, having favoured devolution to Scotland under Heath, turned against it under Thatcher and Major, and even in 1997, after their resounding defeat, they still urged the Scottish electorate to vote No in the referendum setting up the Scottish Parliament. After 1977 Conservatives had no representation in three of the four component nations of the United Kingdom. They had never looked more of an English party, with English roots and English attitudes, and some Conservatives even began to argue that it was now time to abandon the Union.13


19 Apart from the Union that had created the United Kingdom, nothing so defined the modern Conservative party as its commitment to Britain’s Empire. This was the great project of the British state which combined interest and idealism, and provided common purpose for all British citizens. It was the basis of the cross-class appeal of the Conservatives to British workers, appealing to their patriotism and national pride, as well as their material interest in employment and prosperity. The domestic political battle of the twentieth century was regarded by many Conservatives as a battle between Imperialism and Socialism. When Churchill talked in 1946 of Britain belonging to three circles – Anglo-America, Europe, and the Empire and Commonwealth – there was no doubt for Conservatives, or for Churchill, which was the most important of the three. But although Churchill during his war time premiership had declared defiantly that he had not become the King’s First Minister to preside over the destruction of the British Empire, the realities of the post-war world and the interests of the two superpowers made disengagement from Empire inevitable. The first steps were taken under the 1945 Labour Government, but completed under the Conservatives. By the time Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister there was not much left of the Empire, but the invasion of the Falklands by Argentina allowed one last imperial flourish, which reawakened old passions and old divisions, greatly to the Conservatives’ advantage. But the impossibility of going back was shown by the negotiations to return Hong Kong to China.

  • 14  Baker D. & Seawright D. (eds), Britain For and Against Europe: British politics and the question o (...)

20 Some Conservatives, including Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, believed that membership of the European Union would in time come to provide an alternative to the empire, and provide a new purpose and larger identity for Britain’s post-imperial era. But although the leadership committed the Conservative party to membership, and eventually succeeded in negotiating terms of entry against the opposition of the bulk of the Labour party, this commitment was not sustained. Under Margaret Thatcher, although the pace of integration quickened with the signing of the Single European Act, Conservative opposition to the European grew, and the party became deeply split on the issue. Increasing numbers of Conservatives, including Margaret Thatcher herself, came to give priority to maintaining strong links with the United States and the wider Anglosphere, and came to distrust and dislike Britain’s involvement with the European Union.14

Public Service

21 A third pillar of the old Conservative party had been its dedication to public service. The British Establishment was in large part a Conservative Establishment, and the Conservatives were intensely proud of the British state, its Monarchy and its institutions, and were strong supporters of the need to cultivate a strong sense of duty and obligation in those who served the state.

22 This identity received a battering from the Thatcherite onslaught on the state and the old establishment, taking on important professions, in the civil service, the universities and the BBC, and seeking to force them to change their attitudes and behaviour, to fit the more entrepreneurial and free market Britain they were trying to create. Many of the reforms were only partially successful, but they helped create the mood of frustration and demotivation in so many public servants that has persisted up to the present. The attack on self regulation by the professions and its replacement by the procedures of the new public management represented a big cultural shift, and it meant that many of Britain’s professional elites ceased to identify any longer with the Conservatives.


  • 15  Semmel B., Imperialism and Tariff Reform, London, Allen & Unwin, 1960.

23 The Conservative party had always been the party of property, and a defender of the rights of property. After the rise of socialism it became the umbrella party for all property interests, whether land, industry, or finance. But the party also had a strong protectionist tradition, particularly after the departure of most of the free traders in 1846. Conservatives were often critics of liberalism and unfettered free trade. This reputation was reinforced during the Tariff Reform controversy at the beginning of the twentieth century when the Conservatives advocated a strongly protectionist programme to counter unfair trading practices by other nations.15 There was another exodus of free traders from the party, but the position was not changed, and ultimately the party was able to implement a weak form of imperial preference in 1932.

  • 16  Harris N., Competition and the Corporate Society, London, Methuen, 1972.

24Protectionism in relation to trade went along with protectionism in relation to domestic policy too. Since the party did not subscribe to free trade as a universal principle, it was quite happy to see it infringed when there was a substantial domestic interest at stake. In this way the party became associated, particularly in the 1930s, with subsidies to industries in bad times, and with various regulatory devices to suppress competition, and allow self-employed groups like greengrocers and taxidrivers, as well as industries like iron and steel, a substantial amount of protection.16

25 In the 1950s economic liberalism gradually made inroads into the party, but the full effect was not felt until Margaret Thatcher became party leader, and elevated free market doctrines to the status of the only true conservatism. Some of her critics in the party dubbed her policies Manchester School Liberalism. Conservatives had presided over recessions and mass unemployment before, but what made the 1980s different and left an enduring impression on the electorate was that the party leaders justified unemployment as the necessary remedy to restore the economy to health and were unapologetic about the consequences of their policies, which helped deliver a massive shakeout in British industry, a shrinking of the industrial base, and a widening gap between rich and poor, and between regions.


26 The old Conservative party was also concerned with welfare, not just with protecting producers, but also with providing an adequate safety net for the poor. Although it resisted the more extravagant plans of its socialist opponents, the Conservatives were responsible for a great deal of the legislation which established the welfare state, as well as endorsing the main reforms which Labour put in place after 1945. Conservative belief in the state and the national community made it relatively easy for the party to adjust to the idea of a National Health Service, and to the social security plans of the Beveridge Report. It worried whether they were affordable but it did not oppose them in principle, and to the dismay of some of its backbenchers the Conservatives were content to administer the welfare state within the parameters they inherited. This relationship to the welfare state was important in re-assuring the working class Conservative vote, not all of whom were upwardly mobile or rugged self-employed small business people.

  • 17  Pierson P., Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher and the politics of retrenchment, Camb (...)

27The Conservative Governments in the 1980s and 1990s substantially lost the party its reputation as a party which supported the welfare state. This was not because the party seriously dismantled the main programmes of the welfare state, indeed the progress of its reforms was disappointing to many in the Government, and still more to its admirers outside. Public spending remained at a very high level, and spending on education, health and social security all continued to grow,17 although more slowly than in many other countries. However, the party certainly signalled to the electorate that it did not like the welfare state, or public spending, and gave the impression that whenever it could cut a service, or charge for it, then it would. Over the eighteen years tax cuts were given greater priority than increases in public spending, and as a result British public services by 1997 were significantly underfunded compared to public services in most of the rest of the EU. This did political damage to the Conservatives. To many voters it seemed that the Conservatives no longer cared for the majority or for the services on which the majority had to rely.

Cameron’s Revolution

28 Cameron’s strategy in dealing with the failure of the Conservatives since 1992 has been to tackle head-on the negative images with which the party had become associated, and were limiting its appeal. He was the first elected leader since the downfall of Thatcher to tell the party that it needed to change and change radically if it was to be re-elected. He and his team quite consciously modelled their approach on Tony Blair and New Labour in 1994. They saw the main task to be signalling to the electorate and to the media that the Conservative party had changed, it was no longer the old Conservative party, and that it was worth supporting again. One of the main techniques used, also copied from Blair and New Labour, was the unilateral policy pronouncement. Without any formal consultation with the party, the Cameron team devised a strategy to ensure eye-catching headlines that would keep Cameron newsworthy and continually in the public eye. He could not interest the media if he simply restated existing Conservative policy, but he was guaranteed to get attention if he said things that were not expected from a Conservative leader, reversing traditional Conservative stances, on the environment, on nuclear power, on single parents, on poverty, on international aid, on youth crime, on private health insurance, on civil liberties.

  • 18  Tebbit N, Spectator, 29July 2006.

29There was little substance in these early forays by Cameron on to the ground of his opponents. But there was not meant to be. The aim was not to set out a detailed programme for government, but to overturn established views of the Conservatives : the more outlandish the stance the better. If it attracted the ire of traditional Conservatives so much the better. As with old Labour attacks on New Labour it served the purpose of advertising that the party had changed, and could no longer be identified with the old positions. Norman Tebbit charged that David Cameron had done his best to distance the party « from both its bedrock core vote and its four or five million estranged former voters. The modern Conservatives give the impression that respectable working- and lower-middle-class supporters in the suburbs, country towns and villages are not quite good enough for the new 'A'-list, Notting Hill party. The strategy seems to be aimed at persuading Liberal and Labour voters that the Cameron party shares their beliefs and aspirations and would deliver Blairism where Blair has failed. »18

  • 19  Heffer S., The Daily Telegraph, 12July 2006

30In similar vein Simon Heffer, one of the most prominent Conservative journalists and the biographer of Enoch Powell, has regularly derided David Cameron in his column in The Daily Telegraph. He was particularly incensed by the recent call by Cameron that the party needed to show understanding to the problems of young people wearing hoodies (satirised in the media and by Labour as ‘Hug a Hoodie’). Heffer asked whether there is now ‘no soundbite so ludicrous, or no opinion so bizarre, that David Cameron will not utter it, or have his minions encourage us to think he has uttered or might utter it. Perhaps there is still a pale beyond which he will not go : we have yet to hear him, for example, arguing for full agrarian Marxism or greater compassion for child molesters. But certainly this expression of love for the sort of person many of us only meet when being mugged was true to that prime motivation of Mr Cameron’s, which is to challenge our presumptions and enforce that magical and elusive thing known as “change”.19

31Since his election as leader of the Conservatives David Cameron has set about changing his party, repositioning it as a party of the centre rather than of the right. The centre ground in British politics is getting crowded. Everyone wants to be on it, but finding it is not so easy. The centre is not a fixed point on some unchanging spectrum but constantly changes, as the parties themselves change. Cameron’s desire to refashion his party’s image after three general election defeats and thirteen years of flatlining in the polls is understandable. But he faces opposition. Conservatives since 1997 have been divided on how best to respond to the collapse of their support. Thatcherites in the party want the party to give priority to its core vote, scorning the centre ground as an invention of the liberal metropolitan elite. They think the party should stick with the principles which brought it success between 1997 and 1992, since they reflect the common ground shared by the great bulk of the British electorate. Sooner or later the electorate will tire of New Labour and come back to the Conservatives. In sharp contrast Conservative modernisers such as Michael Portillo have argued that the party has to go through a fundamental change in its attitudes, style, and political approach if it is to stand a chance of reconnecting with the electorate and competing on the post-Thatcher political terrain that has up to now been dominated so completely by Tony Blair and New Labour.

32During his leadership campaign David Cameron made some gestures towards the modernisers, but the gusto with which he embraced their agenda once he became leader took everyone by surprise. He has followed closely the model which Blair pioneered as Labour leader after 1994, seeking to prove to the political class and to the electorate by bold gestures, new policy pronouncements and a rhetoric of change and modernisation, that the Conservatives are now a different party, and that it is acceptable to vote for them again. He has not so far declared that the Conservatives will govern as new Conservatives, but that is the meaning of almost everything he says.

33Yet as with Blair there is the same debate about what the new language and the new commitments really amount to, whether the changes are just changes of style, or also involve substance. At the beginning of March 2006, Cameron issued his statement of Aims and Values, Built to Last, which he wants party members to endorse, to give tangible evidence that the party has changed and that it understands that in electing him it has chosen a new direction and not just a new leader. The Thatcherites have begun to express unease, while on the other side modernisers urge Cameron to be bold and take on the Right. Only if there is blood on the floor will the electorate believe that the party has really changed and be ready to vote for the Conservatives in sufficient numbers to return a Conservative government.

34Cameron has issued a series of unilateral policy pronouncements which have reversed Conservative policy on a number of issues from university top-up fees to private health insurance. Some of these have begun to irritate the Right, but they have not so far provoked serious opposition. Cameron has not tried to pick the kind of fight the modernisers think is necessary. His team says it is because the Conservatives do not have a totem like Labour’s Clause IV that can be publicly rejected. But they are looking at the wrong precedent. When Tony Blair persuaded his party to ditch Clause IV it was a sham fight, because Clause IV had long been a symbolic rather than a practical commitment. The most significant battles which reshaped the Labour party had come earlier when Neil Kinnock challenged core beliefs of his party on unilateral nuclear disarmament, on withdrawal from the European Community, on protectionism and on the role of markets. If there is an equivalent for Cameron it is not a Conservative Clause IV but the core beliefs of his party on Europe, on immigration, and on the role of government in the economy.

35So far he has done little to challenge these core beliefs of his party. On Europe he has even thrown a sop to the Conservative Right by pulling the Conservatives out of the moderate Centre-Right grouping in the European Parliament, (the EPP), which threatens to associate the party once more with Europe’s extreme nationalist and racist fringe. Cameron’s circle say this aggressive policy towards Europe is justified because the British electorate is Eurosceptic too. Thatcherites agree. But they argue that the Conservatives should follow the same logic on many other issues as well – immigration, crime, taxation, multiracialism, gay rights, abortion, and much else besides. They want Cameron to adopt a robust, no-nonsense right-wing stance on all these questions, because they believe a populist crusading Conservative party will reconnect with the people and electoral success will surely follow.

36Cameron has gone in exactly the opposite direction, redefining the Conservatives as a socially liberal party, at ease with modern Britain, and optimistic about the future, not stoking people’s fears about their neighbours and the threats from foreigners. But he has so far shirked the big challenges. If he really wanted a showdown with his Right to demonstrate that the party had changed then he would need to confront his party’s obsession with Europe. The problem is not that the party’s position on Europe is unpopular with voters ; rather that most voters think many other issues are much more important. No future Conservative Government will actually deliver what its core vote wants and withdraw from the European Union, anymore that it will end immigration. If Cameron were prepared to challenge his party on this issue, returning to the pragmatic and positive attitude to Europe which Macmillan and Heath displayed, then there really might be some evidence that the Conservative party had fundamentally changed. But there is no sign so far that this is what he intends. The foreign policy instincts of most of those around him are even more unreservedly Atlanticist than Tony Blair.


37 With Cameron’s election to the leadership the initiative in the party has passed to its modernisers. The Conservative core vote strategy that had worked so well in Australia with John Howard, in Canada with Stephen Harper, and in the United States with George Bush, has been rejected. For supporters of the core vote strategy the centre ground is an illusion, an invention of the liberal media elite. The issues a Conservative party should campaign on are immigration, crime, taxation. They should play rough and tough, using media allies and bloggers to attack their opponents, and enthuse their own side. The modernisers strategy is very different. It seeks the centre ground, and seeks to reinvent the Tory party as a socially liberal party, at ease with modern Britain, which includes with multiculturalism, and with the diversity of urban lifestyles. Such a strategy is optimistic about the future, and requires fundamental changes in attitudes, style and political approach. The aim is to reconnect the party to the post-Thatcher political terrain, make people like and respect Conservatives again, and therefore make the party electable again.

38 Whether Cameron will succeed is not yet clear, but he has already made some big strides. There remain big challenges ahead. He is trying to rebuild the Conservative party and attract a younger membership, at a time when the hold of parties on the loyalties of citizens is weakening almost everywhere. The sharp fall in voting by young people in Britain may just be a cohort effect, but many think it represents a cultural shift, with which all the political parties will have to live. The Conservatives face a huge task as well in trying to rebuild Conservative support in urban England, Scotland and Wales. They made no impression in a 2006 Scottish by-election in Dunfermline, and despite a good night in the 2006 local elections, they still failed to make inroads in Northern cities. A third issue is the charge that all Cameron has demonstrated so far is style rather than substance. Certainly the issue of Europe has been dodged, and some major tests will come for Cameron when the policy commissions he has set up start to report. It will not be easy to find compromises (for example on the environment) that will keep everyone on board. He also needs quite urgently to answer Lord Tebbit’s complaint and find a way of differentiating the Conservatives from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The Cameron team clearly think that Gordon Brown is the key to this, and that under him Labour will look much more like Labour than it has done under Blair. But Brown’s team are fully aware of this strategy, and have already begun countering with a strategy of their own, which at times make Brown appear more Blairite than Blair. A final problem, related to his, and hinted at by Tebbit, is how to avoid giving space to parties on the right. If the Conservatives under Cameron please the liberal media establishment too much, it may alienate many potential supporters, particularly in white working class communities, giving fresh opportunities to fringe far right parties like the British National Party and UKIP.

39 Cameron has already shown that he has an instinctive grasp of the need to fashion a new Tory statecraft, one consonant with the party’s traditions, but in tune with the times. He has made the strategic calculation that his predecessors were unable or unwilling to make. Whether this renaissance of the party heralds the return of Tory England lies in the future. But he has certainly put the Conservatives back into contention for the first time for thirteen years.

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1  Wheatcroft G., The Strange Death of Tory England, London, Allen Lane, 2005.

2  Dangerfield R.F., The Strange Death of Liberal England, London, Constable, 1936.

3  Other books with similar themes include Gilmour I. & Garnett M., Whatever happened to the Tories : the Conservative Party since 1945, London, Fourth Estate, 1997 ; and Garnett M. & Lynch P. (eds), The Conservatives in Crisis : The Tories after 1997, Manchester, MUP, 2003.

4  Seldon A. & Ball S. (eds), Conservative Century : The Conservative Party since 1900, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994.

5  Margetts H. & Smyth G. (eds), Turing Japanese ? Britain with a permanent party of government, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1994.

6  Whiteley P., Seyd P. & Richardson J., True Blues : the politics of Conservative party membership, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994.

7  See the YouGov political trackers :

8  Blake TR., The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher, London, Methuen, 1985.

9  Engels complained that the workers had discredited themselves again terribly. See McKenzie R.T. & Silver A., Angels in Marble : working class Conservatives in urban England, London, Heinemann, 1968.

10  Bulpitt J., ‘The Discipline of the New Democracy : Mrs Thatcher’s Domestic Statecraft’, Political Studies, vol. 34, n° 1, 1985.

11  Gilmour I., Dancing with Dogma: Britain under Thatcher, London, Simon & Schuster, 1992.

12  Lynch P.,The Politics of Nationhood: Sovereignty, Britishness and Conservative Politics, London, Macmillan, 1999.

13  Heffer S., Nor Shall My Sword : the reinvention of England, London, Weidenfeld, 1999.

14  Baker D. & Seawright D. (eds), Britain For and Against Europe: British politics and the question of European integration, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998; Buller J., National Statecraft and European Integration: the Conservative Government and the European Union, London, Pinter, 2000;George S., An Awkward Partner: Britain in the European Community, Oxford, Oxford University Press 1994.

15  Semmel B., Imperialism and Tariff Reform, London, Allen & Unwin, 1960.

16  Harris N., Competition and the Corporate Society, London, Methuen, 1972.

17  Pierson P., Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher and the politics of retrenchment, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

18  Tebbit N, Spectator, 29July 2006.

19  Heffer S., The Daily Telegraph, 12July 2006

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Andrew Gamble

Professeur de sciences politiques à l'Université de Cambridge

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