After the fourth Conservative victory in a row in 1992, a belief took hold that Labour would never again win a general election – at least among some sections of the Party. A manifestation of it was the cheers that greeted David Amess from the Tory benches each time he rose to speak in the Commons. Amess is now the MP for Southend West, but he then represented a different seat. “Basildon, Basildon,” Conservative backbenchers cried whenever he stood, in honour of the marginal seat whose retention signalled John Major’s unexpected triumph at the polls.
Tory optimists claimed in advance that last week’s election would be another 1992 – in which an embattled Conservative Prime Minister would come through to confound the pundits, his critics, the Opposition and the pollsters. This is what duly happened. And in some ways, David Cameron’s win is more remarkable than John Major’s. Although his majority and vote share are smaller, he increased the latter from a first term in Government and went from Coalition into majority. Cameron will also leave the Tory leadership with a better election-fighting record than Major: he will have contested two without losing either.
Furthermore, he won his election at a time when there is much, much more opinion polling than in 1992. The convergence of the polls immediately before the election on what they suggested would be a similar vote share between the two main parties was not represented by the result. One explanation of why this happened is that the pollsters didn’t pick up a mass of “Shy Tories” – people who always intended to Vote Conservative, but were unwilling to say so in a country whose elites tend to lean to the Centre-Left. Labour is even speculating that its campaign may have bussed Shy Tories to the polls en masse.
It is tempting for Conservative MPs to conclude that we really do live in a Conservative country after all – roaring “Nuneaton, Nuneaton”, perhaps, whenever Marcus Jones gets to his feet in the chamber. In this vision of the nation, the Left is on top making all the noise, but they are the few; the Right is in the middle and at the bottom, but we are the many. “Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;/ For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet,” wrote Chesterton. But would such a conclusion be the right one to draw?
The question will doubtless be discussed this evening at the Centre-Right conference which ConservativeHome is co-hosting. Indeed, debate has already begun. “The lesson I take from the 2015 triumph against the odds is that conservatism works,” wrote Owen Paterson over the weekend. “This is not a fashionable view. Not even within the Conservative party.” The emphasis of Guy Opperman on this site today is different. “We won this election because David Cameron refused to desert the centre ground of British politics,” he writes.
Who’s right? In a sense, both. As Paterson suggests, the Prime Minister’s election win was shaped by George Osborne and Lynton Crosby, whose appointment as campaign chief brought with it a tougher approach – a no-nonsense offer based on economic recovery, security and strong leadership. This brought clarity to the Conservative offer after a period of confusion. But as Opperman makes clear, Cameron has never abandoned the presentation of himself and his politics as centrist. After all, he is a self-described “liberal Conservative” – who this weekend again raised the banner of One Nation.
One point is clear: Chesterton wrote of “the people of England“, not “the people of Britain” – a distinction that applies to last Thursday’s events with a vengeance. That we have a single solitary seat in Scotland confirms that, whatever may be true of the rest of the UK, Scotland is not a Conservative country. Nor is Northern Ireland (though the Ulster Unionists, once part of the Party, now have a seat). Nor is Wales – although, under Stephen Crabb and Andrew Davies, an outstanding result was achieved last week: the best for 30 years.
Nor even, when push comes to shove, is England. Certainly, the electoral map is now a mass of almost uninterrupted blue – south of Coventry at any rate, with the exceptions of London and South Wales. But in the urban north and big swathes of our cities, and among younger and ethnic minority voters, Toryism is still a minority pursuit. Across the country as a whole, the Party won only 37 per cent of the vote across the UK as a whole – five per cent less than John Major. Nor can the UKIP total of 13 per cent simply be totted up as part of the Conservative total.
England is certainly a conservative country in the sense of wanting to keep hold of what it has got. Ed Miliband stood clearly for making it more left-wing. The voters rejected his prospectus decisively – fearing that it would be made even more left-wing by Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP. The people of England believed that the Labour-SNP alliance of which Cameron warned was coming after their wallets. Conservatives would be wise not to draw more grandiose conclusions. The country in which most of us live may be conservative – but that’s conservative spelt with a small c, not a large one.