Cameron must reunite the Tories or lose the next election

Some Conservatives pine for a leader who can bring the family back together -- and look wistfully towards Boris

27 September 2014

9:00 AM

27 September 2014

9:00 AM

No one goes to Birmingham to revive a marriage. But that is what David Cameron and the Conservative party must do next week at conference. They must find a way to put the passion back into their relationship, to learn to trust each other again ahead of the general election. For neither can win without the other next May.

That election is there to be won. The Labour gathering in Manchester this week was not one of a party convinced that it is going to surge to victory in a few months. The atmosphere was subdued, bordering on depressed. Thoughtful Labour frontbenchers wandered around fretting about how there was nothing in the programme to expand the party’s appeal. Unlike last year, Ed Miliband failed to make the political weather with his speech. By forgetting to talk about the deficit and immigration, he omitted the two most important issues in British politics — the ones that matter most to the voters.

Three issues most determine general elections: the economy, leadership and how unified a party is. On the first two, the Conservatives are polling well. But on the third, they have a major problem; 61 per cent of voters think they are divided. On stage in Birmingham next week, Douglas Carswell will not be mentioned. But in the bars and on the fringe, his defection — and its implications — will be much discussed. The split on the right is about to become a feature of the British parliamentary system, and could deny Cameron victory in 2015.

When Carswell resigned and forced a by-election in Clacton, the Conservative leadership feared it would overshadow everything else. They decided to hold it as soon as possible to get it out of the way. Events in Scotland, though, have meant that the by-election has not dominated the political agenda in the way that Ukip hoped it would. But the danger posed to the Conservatives’ electoral prospects by the split on the right remains just as acute.

No one at Conservative Campaign Headquarters now bothers to deny that Ukip will take Clacton. This defeat will be a brutal reminder that Cameron can’t win if Conservatives keep switching to Ukip. He has to find a way to stop the defections and to persuade some of those who have already gone to come back.

Some Conservatives pine for a new leader who can reunite the Conservative family. Many wistful glances are cast in Boris Johnson’s direction. They believe that the sheer force of Boris’s personality can solve this problem. For now, however, Cameron remains one of the Conservatives’ greatest electoral assets. He has 22 points on Ed Miliband on the question of who would be the best prime minister. Any Conservative strategy for victory has to take advantage of Cameron’s position in the leadership stakes.

Cameron once stood on a Conservative party policy of ‘change to win’. But it didn’t change enough and he didn’t win enough. This has put a strain on the union of the Cameroons and the old guard. Each blamed the other for the party’s failure to gain a majority in 2010. This problem has been compounded by the compromises of coalition and the loss of prime ministerial patronage involved. Cameron’s poor man management hasn’t helped either. He is, as even an ally of his admits, in danger of ‘suffering death by a thousand slights’.

But an unlikely marriage counsellor has emerged: Michael Gove. The new chief whip has set about trying to rebuild the relationship between the PM and his party. Cameron’s decision to whisk a group of parliamentarians off to Chequers on Monday had Gove’s fingerprints all over it. The guest list wasn’t confined to loyalists; it included several people that No. 10 had previously regarded as being beyond the pale.

Gove is assisted by Cameron’s parliamentary private secretary Gavin Williamson, who spends even more time talking to disaffected Tory MPs than Ukip. Regular visitors to No. 10 credit this pair with making the Cameron circle understand that it is not just the awkward squad who are frustrated with him. Lynton Crosby at Conservative Campaign Headquarters also spends a lot of his time holding the hands of agitated Conservative MPs.

In both policy and personnel terms, Cameron is closer to the Conservative party’s centre of gravity than he was in 2010. The rise of the new intake, who tend to be hard modernisers, and the fading away of old wets such as Ken Clarke, George Young and Andrew Lansley, has shifted the balance of the Cabinet to the right.

Policy-wise, Cameron is firmly in the Conservative mainstream. He wants to renegotiate Britain’s terms of EU membership with the result ratified by a referendum, limit the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, introduce English votes for English laws and continue with education and welfare reform. Some doubt Cameron’s sincerity on the first three issues, pointing out that he adopted these positions under pressure.

Then there are those Conservatives who would like to lose next year. What will puzzle political historians about this is how Miliband and his radical left-wing agenda did not unify the centre-right. Many on the right chuckle at how odd the voters think Miliband looks and assume that a Red Ed government would be the fastest route back to Conservative majority politics. They should remember that pre-’79, many on the left believed Mrs Thatcher’s manner was so grating that she couldn’t survive long at the top of British politics.

Miliband has long wanted to be the left’s Thatcher, to create a new political settlement. He felt able to offer such a genuine tribute to her on her death precisely because he wanted to overturn her legacy. If he wins next May, he’ll have the chance to do that. He already has an electoral advantage that Thatcher only gained in office: his side of the political spectrum is united while his opponents are divided.

Miliband is in the vanguard of a new political movement — left populism. This movement believes that the current economic rules are rigged in favour of the privileged few and favours considerably higher taxes and more government intervention to level the playing field. The more Miliband sets out this agenda, the more Cameron and the Conservative party should realise that if they cannot reconcile their differences, Britain will become a far more left-wing country.

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  • Mynydd

    It should be quite easy for Mr Cameron to reunite the Conservative party, after all it’s only half the size it was when he became leader. The trouble leaders in the shires are long gone.
    Mr Cameron’s first problem come the general election, is not having enough foot soldiers to knock on doors. I don’t see the hedge fund donators pounding the streets like the union donators will.
    Mr Cameron’s second problem come the general election, is his record in government. He cannot even say he is tax cutter when he increase VAT to 20%. He still doesn’t realise how damaging the “Bedroom Tax” has been, for it not only effects one person/couple but their children who see the damage it has done to their mother/father. That adds up to a lot of lost votes.

  • cambridgeelephant

    So Cameron – or ‘the Cameroons’ as they are loathsomely called – feel the need to reconnect with their own party ? Hmmmmm…..

    When Dave took over membership was 250,000.

    It is now less than 100,000. How much less they won’t say as it would be too embarrassing. But the Conservative Party is a shell, even in constituencies it comfortably holds and has held for decades.

    In fact it might be more vibrant in some marginals, than it is in safe seats.

    But Cameron has pretty much trashed the party in the country. Now he wants everyone to know how much he loves it.

    As I say. Hmmmmmm……?

  • Mukkinese

    He has already lost the election, it is just a matter of how badly…

    • Alexsandr

      dunnno about that. he may be rescued by SNP taking lbour votes in scotland and UKIP taking labour votes in England. And a few kipper MP’s will be largely on the tories side in the HoC

    • rtj1211

      Given that both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party are polling at around 30%, it’s arguable that everyone has lost the election based on the old verities.

      You know what? I don’t have a problem with that.

      It’s only autocratic people who have to rule by fear, 3-line whips and smearing opponents in the Press who have to have majority rule.

      Mature people know that life is about compromise and make compromises without difficulty.

      It’s only the Press and political parties who can’t do it…….

  • commenteer

    I’m curious to know the definition a ‘hard moderniser’. I had thought Tory modernisers were all in the Matthew d’Ancona ‘liberal’ mode.

  • I fear you’re right mr forsyth, and the only sanction left will be to leave the country. too many people on the right are enjoying the cheap thrill of self-righteous separatism, and that’s enough with the messed up electoral system to give us a decade of red ed.

  • Mr Forsyth either does not understand ordinary Conservative Party members (and Conservative Members of Parliament – outside the leadership) or he is pretending not to understand. We do not want to “renegotiate” the E.U. (a meaningless objective – Mr Cameron has been taking about it for years and has not defined what specific powers he will get back) we want to get OUT of the European Union (we are against the European Union and in favour of British independence – that position is not the property of UKIP, it is the property of all loyal British people). Nor are we interested in local Guardian reading judges “interpreting” the European Convention on Human Rights (rather than European judges doing so) – we want out of the Convention (full stop). On these matters (and so many others) the leadership propose changes that are NOT really changes at all. It is like government spending – where we are promised a roll back, but then the ministers boast of their commitment to “Social Justice” and “Social Investment” and “Social ….” (whatever). Meanwhile government spending remains uncut (contrary to the claims) and education (the schools and universities) remain under the iron heal of the left. And, of course, the credit bubble monetary policy (started under Labour) continues – with real savers being crucified in order to stoke up an artificial housing boom. With endless government schemes (“loans”, “grants” and so on) expressing designed to turn fields and woodland into housing estates.
    As for Labour – Mr Forsyth seems to think that Mr Miliband can do what he likes without consequences. He can not – economic law (a very different thing from the Keynesian nonsense taught in PPE courses at Oxford) ensures that his collectivist policies would fail, and that their failure that would destroy him and his party. On winning the next election – I must certainly hope that the Conservative Party does win the next general election, but to do so the leadership must reflect the opinions of the British people – not the BBC and the Guardian letters page – government “Gay Marriage” (what people do in private is their own business) and “overseas aid” are not going to win us any votes (quite the contrary).

  • As for the defence “it is all the fault of the Lib Dems” – I agree that the Lib Dems are vile (utterly vile), But who was it who was so eager (even before the last election) to get into bed with the Lib Dems? Letting it be known (again and again) that he loved the Lib Dems and despised the “Tory right” – i.e. the vast majority of Conservative Party members and (on all the important matters – although, sadly, some of the ordinary people who agree with us on all the important matters of principle vote for other parties) the majority of the British people? We do not want nice words now – we want clear commitments, no more European Union, no more (once separate, but not really separate now) European Convention on “human rights”, no more “Social Justice” Guardian-BBC stuff, no more government subsidised P.C. (on race, sex, sexuality or anything else). no more wild “overseas aid”, just an end to all this stuff. And an end to the Bank of England Credit Bubble (borrowing to be financed by REAL SAVINGS at proper interest rates agreed between lenders and borrowers) – and the subsidies to developers to ruin the country (and an end to subsidies to buy or rent their products). All this may indeed what Labour and the Lib Dems want – but it is NOT what we want (and our leadership must understand this).

  • If everything I have suggested is ruled “politically impossible” (in spite of being supported by the vast majority of Conservative Party members and the British people) – why not a simple move, an end to “HS2”. At a stroke the government would save many tens of billions of Pounds, and would stop stealing private land and turning natural supporters into our sworn enemies – in a whole series of Conservative constituencies. There is no law saying these people must vote Conservative – they can stay home or vote UKIP. We must give fiscally conservative people (people who do not want to spend taxpayer money wildly) a reason to vote for us.

    • Alexsandr

      of course scrapping HS2 for reasons that its unnecessary and the wrong thing to do would help too. They should do an upgrade on transpennine first -there is a desperate need there.

  • Epimenides

    Cheesus James, you need to take your eyes off the microscope and look at the big picture. Cameron has lost already.

    “Renegotiate Britain’s terms of EU…”. This is myth. Nobody believes this.

    • Fred Smith

      Nobody with any sense believes it but there are a significant, if dwindling, number of suckers who swallow it.

  • sfin

    “Cameron once stood on a Conservative party policy of ‘change to win’. But it didn’t change enough and he didn’t win enough.”

    Am I the only one who sees an inherent incompatibility with these sentences?

    Cameron didn’t win enough because he changed too much – i.e. He is not a conservative, he is a progressive – the “heir to Blair”.

  • vvputout

    It’s not a case of reuniting, which would be impossible. The party will win in 2015 but split over the EU-referendum; most of us will accept, with varying degrees of willingness, a decision to stay inside but the fruitcake wing won’t.

    It might be possible to save the situation in England if EVEL has been forced through after the 2015 GE and the SNP decimates ScotLab’s Westminster seats in succeeding GEs.

    However, after the split it will be necessary to rebuild the party in a form fit for the 21st century, rather than one which meets the requirements of the ageing middle-class activists who currently dominate the constituency associations.

  • jeffersonian

    Humble suggestion for how Cameron might best re-unite the Right: resign.

  • Kaine

    Well this was poorly timed.

  • greggf

    “That election is there to be won.”

    Not any more .
    The future is coalitions – at best minority government.
    The old tribal landscape no longer dominates the electorate; there are more factions in place than before, factions which straddle the political parties.
    And anyway trust in any one party is in short supply as the many shabby compromises and outright trickery keep emerging about the recent past.
    Despite the obvious lesson from the Scottish referendum, more referendums will be evaded – giving the voter such neat spirit is unlikely to be repeated soon, and the voter knows it.

  • Robert Andersen

    ‘ Cameron is firmly in the Conservative mainstream. He wants to renegotiate Britain’s terms of EU membership’
    As this statement has become more oxymoronic, then so has UKIP’s strength grown. As for the country becoming more left wing, well it’s arguable that will be Camerons legacy.
    What is truly fascinating is the way in which UKIP can so easily appeal to the poorest in society e.g. taking minimum wage earners out of tax altogether, yet also appeal higher up the spectrum e.g. raising 40% threshold to £55k, financing this by cutting EU and foreign aid contributions, 2 things that, er, Cameron has pinned to his mast…Oh dear!
    Were Milliband and Clegg to gain power they would crash the economy and take the country down, be in no doubt- they are the worst of politicians since deep down they have not a pastoral DNA fibre between them (all the talk of ‘fairness’ is envy politics fluff , and Cameron isn’t much better, especially after the disgraceful u-turn on minimum pricing of alcohol.
    At least with Farage people feel he really does care about something, and it happens to be a thing dear to many Brits- namely their beautiful and united countries.

  • global city

    Would, COULD Cameron ever come up with something as heartfelt as

    “We are more than a star in somebody else’s flag.”


  • Major Plonquer

    Reuniting the Tory Party would be an excellent idea. It’s a pity we don’t have one.