David Cameron’s speech on the European Union and our future within it was supposed to put an end, at least temporarily, to the incessant complaining and bickering within the Conservative Party on the subject of Europe. It was hoped that a cessation of hostilities would force Conservative MPs to stop alienating the electorate by imitating the action of an ostrich and instead form a united front on some of the issues on which the next general election will be fought: fiscal responsibility, welfare and education, among others.
The speech itself, on the morning of January 23rd, set out a vision for a more flexible, less bureaucratic, more democratic European Union, with Britain at its heart, and then offered us a referendum on a union which will likely be indistinguishable from the inflexible, bureaucratic, undemocratic EU of today. Notwithstanding the impracticability of his vision, the speech was a triumph; the Prime Minister had appeased the grumpy eurosceptic wing of the party with the promise of a referendum, whilst stressing the importance of our remaining within the Union. Arriving in the House of Commons that day, he was greeted with the enthusiastic thrusting of order papers across the Conservative benches. From the outside, it looked like something approaching unity.
It therefore came as a surprise when, just three days later, news emerged of a planned coup by the MP for Windsor, Adam Afriyie. Of course, Afriyie has no chance of unseating the Prime Minister; his career since entering Parliament in 2005 has been one of uninterrupted obscurity. Yet the whole episode shows a wider disgruntlement with Mr Cameron’s leadership and a fundamental disagreement within the party about the future of conservatism.
It is well documented that many Conservative MPs are unhappy about Mr Cameron’s failure to win an overall majority at the last general election and the compromises he rightly made when entering into coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps more significant, however, is the perception amongst the grumps that Mr Cameron is not sufficiently conservative: that his reforms to the public sector and austerity programme do not go far enough. Many seem blinded by a deep commitment to ideology, which demands conservative means, with little consideration for ends or, crucially, perceptions. Many, for example, call for more radical reductions in public sector expenditure, driven in part, I suspect, by the idea that cuts in state expenditure are inherently good and unconcerned that deeper cuts would soon become unacceptable to the electorate. What is more they believe the electorate is conservative at heart and should soon realise that more conservative policies and more austerity are what they want and need. The whole approach seeks to preach to the electorate, not engage with it, and is regarded as utterly toxic by great swathes of the country.
David Cameron, on the other hand, is not constrained by such fundamentalism. When he was elected as party leader in 2005, he recognised the pressing need to make progress where his predecessors had failed, in modernising and detoxifying the Tory brand. Along with some naff, if symbolic, gimmicks, he focused on creating policy which used conservative means to achieve ends which are beneficial for all. Policy had to be ‘fair and seen to be fair’.
Matthew d’Ancona writes compellingly in the Telegraph about this dichotomy within the Conservative Party: the modernisers versus the traditionalists; modern, humble, flexible, compassionate conservatism, fit for government in the 21st century versus the cold, uncompromising, ideological conservatism, reminiscent of the 1980s, which pervades part of the party. He regrets, however, what he sees as the abandonment of David Cameron’s modernising drive after it became clear that substantial fiscal consolidation was needed in the wake of the crash.
Yet listening to the Prime Minister speak, especially in his excellent speech at the Conservative Party conference in October 2012, it is hard not to hear the rhetoric of modernisation ringing through. When trumpeting the policies of the Coalition Government in the three key areas of the economy, education and welfare he very deliberately expresses how they will help the poor and vulnerable and ‘unleash and unlock the promise in all our people’.
Michael Gove has done an excellent job illustrating how his school reforms - giving schools and head teachers independence from the yoke of the Local Education Authorities, toughening up our dilapidated exam system - will help deliver a more rigorous, disciplined and liberal education for young people. Yet it has largely been left to Mr Cameron to explain that such an education system will help to improve the scandalous lack of social mobility which has built up over many years in our society.
Iain Duncan Smith has been marginally more effective in communicating the social implications of a system of universal credit which will ensure that it always pays to work. It is David Cameron, however, who enunciates with the greatest clarity and conviction that a welfare system which carries no incentives to work traps families in generational dependency, while one which incentivises work helps people to break free of the shackles of dependency to forge their way in society.
George Osborne has been ineffective in communicating that a strong private sector, working in conjunction with a lean, efficient public sector is the only way to tackle structural unemployment. Again it has been left to the Prime Minister to explain that the tragic levels of generational unemployment in this country are best treated by sustainable private sector growth, and that in order to ensure the prosperity of future generations, they must be liberated from the weight of accumulated debt.
This modern conservatism spreads beyond our shores with the Prime Minister’s courageous commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid in 2013. Under the excellent guidance of Andrew Mitchell, before he was unfortunately promoted to Government Chief Whip, this government has been helping to provide food, medicine and education to some of the poorest and most vulnerable in the world. Yet many grumpy Conservatives seek to have the aid budget slashed or even scrapped.
I agree with Matthew d’Ancona that the programme of modernisation in government should have gone further. The rhetoric of modernisation has often been drowned by the starker language of ‘tough decisions’ taken in ‘the national interest’. The upheaval of the NHS was a mistake; such changes are inevitably disruptive and it is difficult to see how they will bring about greater accountability or better care. Moreover, the recent Cabinet reshuffle seemed to represent a shift to the right and Chris Grayling is now unpicking some of the good, liberal work done by Kenneth Clarke at the Ministry of Justice. Certainly, there is no space for huskies and hoodies in government. Yet on the biggest issues, in his conference speech and consistently in interviews and at Prime Minister’s Questions, he has been able to communicate how conservative means, when implemented with good motives, can and will be advantageous for all.
This is the future of conservatism and the reason Mr Cameron consistently polls ahead of the parliamentary party as a whole. Any public challenge to his authority by someone more serious than Mr Afriyie would likely expose a divided party and offer a platform for the grumps to demand the implementation of their toxic blend of ill-considered right-wing policies. This would be disastrous for the Conservative’s chances at the next general election.
For all Mr Cameron’s faults - he is reported to treat some backbench MPs with disdain and he has presided over too many unforced errors - the future of the Conservative Party must be with him at the helm. He has grasped what it means to be a Conservative in the 21st century and any challenge to this vision risks thrusting the party back into bitter irrelevance.
Today, the Conservative Party will once again divide, this time on the issue of gay marriage. It is a trivial issue, a simple removal of an anomaly, which will have absolutely no effect on the lives of most and will soon be accepted and forgotten. Yet many of the grumpy, traditionalist Conservative MPs are wailing hysterically that the institution of marriage will be fundamentally undermined.
Yet again, David Cameron is on the right side of the argument. He has been a strong supporter of gay marriage for some time, advocating it from the conservative stance that marriage is a great institution and he wants to extend it to as many as possible.
This small point is a simulacrum for the wider struggle between modern conservatism and grumpy, antiquated conservatism. David Cameron is determined to finish the job he started eight years ago. He represents the only chance the Conservatives have of an overall majority in 2015 and the party should get behind him. Fratricide would be suicidal.
By Luke Arnold