David Cameron’s modernising movement divided as long ago as 2007, when George Osborne declared that he was not “an uber-moderniser”. The Cameron leadership had had a bad summer, a new Labour Prime Minister had had a good one, and a snap general election looked a distinct possibility – bringing a fourth successive Labour Government with it. “I don’t take the kind of über-modernising view that some have had, that you can’t talk about crime or immigration or lower taxes,” Osborne said. He was preparing the ground for the inheritance tax cut and stamp duty cut pledges that sent the Tory poll ratings soaring back up, Labour’s plunging back down, and averted that election altogether.
What the then Shadow Chancellor may have been getting at was that, as time passed after Cameron won the leadership in 2005, some in his circle seemed increasingly to believe that the Party’s electoral appeal could not be broadened if its electoral base was not first alienated. Most Tories and business people wanted airport expansion, but this imperative clashed with new green policies, so it must be junked (along with any new nuclear power stations that were not self-financing). Most Conservatives and voters wanted tough law and order measures, but voters got the message that they should “hug a hoodie” (not, admittedly, a phrase that Cameron himself used). Immigration had been over-stressed in the 2005 election, so the leadership went to the other extreme, and minimised mention of it.
Then, in the summer of 2007, came David Willetts’s speech on grammar schools. It helped to propel Cameron into the very crisis that it took Osborne’s tax-cutting speech to extract him from. Once in government, the uber-modernisers carried on where they left off in opposition. There are arguments for and against same-sex marriage. (I am opposed.) But whatever the merits of the case, it could scarcely have been handled worse than the Conservative leadership handled it – as the Prime Minister has as good as admitted. In today’s Guardian, Ryan Shorthouse of Bright Blue concedes that the uber-modernisers “made mistakes by allowing themselves to be depicted as obsessed with metropolitan issues. ‘We’re now being pigeonholed into just caring about and being obsessed with metropolitan issues like gay marriage and green issues,” he said. (See also his Independent piece.)
Shorthouse, who the paper makes a point of saying, “is close to [Andrew] Cooper” (Cameron’s recently departed director of strategy), is right to say that there must be more to the Conservatives than opposition to immigration and welfare. We’re scarcely likely to say otherwise: a balanced conservatism had been the leitmotif of this site since Tim Montgomerie first set it up. I want to see a conservatism for Bolton West that will appeal to the no-nonsense voters in the northern and midlands marginals that we must win in 2015. That means homes, jobs and savings for all – more housebuilding on public land as well as the welfare cap, for example; more cuts in jobs taxes as well as tougher border controls. It means groups of Tory candidates fighting on more local manifestos and putting their areas first; a rise in the NI threshold; more nuclear power stations; English votes for English laws, perhaps a cut in fuel duty.
Maybe policies such as these will crop up in the “liberal Conservative manifesto” that Bright Blue is to publish in the spring: we shall see. (A declaration of interest: I am writing for it on gaining more ethnic minority votes and support.) But if such a programme is to have any cut-through with Party members, those who are shaping it will have to learn from the past, and fast. The uber-modernisers should face up to the fact that if they have been “pigeonholed” as “obsessed with metropolitan issues”, it is largely their fault, and admit that the widening and deepening of the Party’s electoral support are not mutually exclusive objectives – unless one wants to act as a recruiting-sergeant for UKIP.
In short, they could do worse than show a little bit of love for the institution that they are actually trying to help – and that includes the Party’s activist base. Otherwise they might as well observe Attlee’s famous period of silence, for all the good that complaining to the Guardian will do.