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Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. The truth of this old saying was amply demonstrated in days after the election result, when various shades of true blue opinion claimed credit for the Conservative victory.

The best, and most subtle, claim on behalf of the modernisers was made by Danny Finkelstein in The Times (£) – which provoked a spirited response from Iain Martin on Cap X:

“…there is a problem with the theory that it was modernisers wot won it. In order to win, the modernisers first junked an awful lot of their modernisation programme. By half way through the last parliament the Prime Minister himself was talking about ‘ditching the green crap,’ which represented a remarkable turn around on the part of a leader who began in 2005 by hugging huskies and campaigning against global warming. They abandoned the Big Society motif (which had been a great Burkean Tory idea marketed atrociously) and instead adopted a hard-nosed and very clear line on the economy.”

The argument is that this yank on the tiller steered the Tories to victory:

“…in the last parliament Cameron did something remarkable, which most leaders cannot do because they turn inwards as they get older. For this he deserves great credit. In the last couple of years he learnt from his mistakes and he adjusted course.”

Iain Martin makes some good points and it’s true that the modernisers can’t claim all the credit. However, he overlooks the fact that Cameron made a second set of course corrections.

For instance, on the environment, Downing Street came to regret the ‘green crap’ moment – and well before the election was working hard to restore the Government’s green credentials. The eco-sceptic ministers appointed to key positions as part of the first change of tack were either moved elsewhere or dropped altogether. Furthermore, the Government stuck to its climate change commitments and the PM signed a cross-party agreement to end the use of unabated coal-fired power plants.

As for the Big Society, the problem was more one of policy development and implementation than marketing. However, the parts of the agenda that survived this initial period of difficulty went from strength to strength – especially the decentralisation of power to cities. Indeed, by the time of the election the Darwinian narrative of the ‘global race’ was giving way to the optimistic, One Nation vision of the Northern Powerhouse.

Instead of being “junked” it’s more accurate to say that modernisation was extensively refitted. In the case of candidate selection, the ostentatious ‘A-list’ was replaced by a less aggressive strategy that nevertheless saw record numbers of ethnic minority candidates selected for winnable seats.

Iain Martin argues that the modernisers were, at times, unnecessarily confrontational and that “quite a few [Conservative] voters left for UKIP.” This is certainly the case – and given UKIP’s four million votes we must assume that many of these defectors never came back. However, given the rise in Conservative support, the inescapable fact is that these losses were more than compensated for by votes from the centre-ground – including record levels of support from ethnic minority voters.

I’m not sure that Cameron would have done as well among centrist swing voters if he hadn’t made his second set of course corrections.

Back in June last year I wrote the following:

“One of the established arguments against leaning too far to the right is that it would convince ex-Lib Dem voters to stick with Labour, thereby giving Ed Miliband the edge in Con-Lab marginals. However, there’s now an even stronger argument – which that in many seats the remaining Lib Dem vote could be persuaded to collapse towards the Conservatives. Furthermore, it is surely easier to squeeze a party in decline (the Lib Dems) than one on the rise (UKIP).”

Not that I thought that UKIP voters should be ignored:

“The smartest strategy would be to reach out to UKIP and Lib Dem voters at the same time. This is by no means impossible.”

The election result is proof that the Conservatives can indeed reach out in both directions.

6 comments for: Heresy of the week: David Cameron won the election because he changed course not once, but twice

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