The Conservatives: a victory for modernisation?

Posted by ap507 at May 14, 2015 12:05 PM |
Dr Philip Lynch discusses how Prime Minister David Cameron ranks as a Conservative leader - and what he may be remembered for in the future
The Conservatives: a victory for modernisation?

Source: Wikipedia

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David Cameron now ranks among the more successful leaders of the Conservative Party. Having gained 96 seats at the 2010 general election, the party’s biggest upturn since 1931, he has become the first Conservative Prime Minister since 1955 to increase both the party’s seats and share of the vote – and the first since 1900 to do so having served a full term. Has Cameron’s modernisation project finally delivered on its early promise?

On becoming leader in 2005, Cameron sought to restore trust in the Conservatives, detoxify the party’s image, reposition it closer to the political centre and reconfigure its ideology. Success at the 2015 general election owed much to the Conservatives being regarded as more competent than Labour, particularly on the economy, and Cameron being preferred to Miliband as prime minister. But warnings of a deal between Labour and the SNP also proved crucial.

The Conservative Party’s image has improved since 2005, but many who backed them in 2015 did so with their heads rather than their hearts. Austerity and perceptions of a privileged elite at the top of the party continued to damage the brand. The increase in women and ethnic minority Conservative MPs and ministers, and promotions for ministers from less privileged background may help.

Cameron’s modernisation has lacked ideological coherence. His pragmatism, coalition with the Liberal Democrats and the financial crisis have not helped, and underlying tensions between economic liberalism and social liberalism remain unresolved. A post-election turn to blue collar conservatism recalls the early stage of Cameron’s modernisation, but further substantial cuts to public spending are in the offing and Thatcherite instincts remain strong within the party.

Cameron’s move to the centre ground opened up space to the right that UKIP marched into, leading Cameron to return to issues such as the EU and immigration that he had initially downplayed. The historic schism on the Right may not have inflicted the electoral damage that some Conservatives feared. But UKIP’s success among social conservative, working class voters is a problem for the Conservatives as well as Labour: it diminishes the Conservative appeal to this cohort (the ‘Tebbit Tories’ of old) and dents their ‘one nation’ ambitions. UKIP’s main issues – immigration, the EU, dissatisfaction with the political establishment – remain live.

Effective modernisation involves fundamental change to party ideology, policy and identity in response to changes in the economy, state, society and international arena. Cameron’s initial modernisation focused on electoral strategy and did not fully address the erosion of the foundations of Conservative dominance. The traditional Conservative defence of the constitution and Union no longer appears viable. But the party’s policies amount to muddling through and raise as many problems as they seek to resolve. A more comprehensive approach will be needed to restore the health of the British state.

The UK’s relationship with the EU is another problem that goes to the heart of Conservative statecraft and party identity. Cameron’s renegotiation-referendum position allowed his party to put on a broadly united front at the election, but problems lie ahead. EU leaders may accede to Cameron’s more modest demands, but it will be a bumpy ride. However, many Conservative MPs already want more –e.g. a veto over future EU law and the right to disapply existing law – than will be asked for or offered, threatening a worsening of intra-party divisions in the referendum campaign.

The issue also threatens to disconnect the Conservatives’ position as both the party of the nation state and of business. However, if Cameron does succeed, it would ease the most troublesome issue in his party, put UK membership of EU on a surer footing and guide the EU to a clearer position on differentiated integration. If he fails, Cameron could be remembered as the prime minister who pushed the UK towards EU exit and lost the Union.

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