In my speech yesterday at the conference on Conservatives and Conservatism – the conference finished this morning – I discussed the variables responsible for Conservative success in the 20th Century and utilised them for assessing the current position of the Conservative Party.
The 20th Century was characterised by Seldon and Ball as the ‘Conservative century’ (the title of their edited volume). I have previously argued that the variables responsible for success were: conveying a sense of competence in handling the affairs of the nation, especially its public finances; unity; strong leadership; and a sense of public service. The first of these provides the principal condition for success: the rest are ancillary. These four variables are specific to the party. There is a fifth: the state of its opponents.
These provided the basis for explaining success and also for the party’s dramatic failure in 1997. Following ‘Black Wednesday’ in 1992, there was a collapse in the public’s confidence in the party’s handling of economic affairs. Disunity over European integration, sleaze, and controversy over the leadership exacerbated public distrust, but they were not the cause of it. The distrust lingered well beyond 1997. The party had effectively lost the 2001 and 2005 elections in September 1992. David Cameron was able to do what his three predecessors had failed to do and that is to render the party electable. However, as I argued in 2009, being electable was not the same as ensuring election. There was a partial but not complete restoration of trust.
The variables provide the basis for assessing the current position of the party and its capacity to gain election in its own right. Recent controversies, not least resulting from the March budget, have undermined trust, but not destroyed it. Disunity is an issue – electors do not reward disunited parties – but the problem is less to do with the unprecedented level of cross-voting by MPs on issues such as the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, but rather with public and continuing dissent over European integration (still the fault line of British politics). David Cameron can be decisive in decision making, but he faces the challenge of identifying a future goal. (This was not always necessary, but Margaret Thatcher’s leadership has shaped expectations.) The expenses scandal still hovers over MPs and the constraints may make exacerbate the capacity of independently wealthy politicians to be to the fore; not necessarily a problem in itself, but it may affect perceptions at times of austerity.
The conditions of coalition contribute a further complication in relation to ensuring unity. As I said yesterday, there are problems with public perception if there are squabbles not only within the family but with the neighbours as well.
In my talk, I offered these variables as providing a framework for analysis. However, what seemed to grab the attention of the audience was when I referred to the danger of the Government suffering from premature administration. There is the danger – associated usually with governments after years in office – of becoming an administration rather than a government, going into response mode (being too concerned with the ministerial red boxes) rather than standing back and thinking strategically in terms of where one wishes to be in five or ten years. The Conservative Party needs to be thinking politically as well as governmentally.
There are notable challenges, some unique (notably condintions of coalition) in post-war years, but they are not insurmountable. The prerequisite for tackling them is knowing what they are.