There is much media discussion as to what the Prime Minister needs to do to restore the fortunes of the Conservative Party. Various strategies are being proferred: take a more robust line on this or that policy, move the party in this or that direction. What much of the discussion misses is the fundamental reason why the Conservative Party was the party of government for most of the 20th Century – and why it ceased to be so at the end of the century.
The Conservative Party was successful because it was able to convey that it was a competent party of government, primarily in handling the finances of the nation. That sense of competence was reinforced by unity, leadership and a sense of public service. The perception of competence in handling the public finances was lost in 1992 following Black Wednesday. Party support in the polls collapsed. There were also party splits (not least over European integration), divisions over the party leadership, and public service appeared to be replaced by self interest. The splits over issues such as Europe reinforced the Government’s unpopularity but they were not the cause of it.
At the end of the day, Bill Clinton got it right: ‘It’s the economy, stupid’. Focusing on other issues does not get to the heart of it. The Government has to demonstrate that it is competent in handling the affairs of the nation, especially the economy. In that respect, it has the advantage denied it when the electors put it into Opposition – it is still in Government and has time to act. But there needs to be a very clear understanding as to the essentials of the problem.