In this unique coalition government the Conservative Party cannot afford to sub-contract ‘niceness’ to the Liberal Democrats. Immigration Minister Damian Green expanded on this point in a speech to the TRG before Christmas when he said: ‘We must not sub-contract the need to keep the government in the progressive space to the Liberal Democrats.’
Allowing the narrative to take hold that somehow the Liberal Democrats are tempering the instincts of the ‘nasty’ Tories could be fatal to the long term prospects of the Conservative Party. The so called ‘de-toxification’ of the Tory brand was an essential task of the last six years. Huge progress was made, but this vital work was only partially completed by the time of the last election. We cannot afford to neglect this job as we grapple with the complex problems of governing.
We need to develop a clear, long term strategy which builds on the successes of the last few years. That strategy needs to be clear that the development of a modern, compassionate Conservative Party is not a function of an obsession with image or spin but is a deep seated expression of our values as a party. We need to be clear that we are all custodians of the Conservative Party brand – a brand which requires careful nurturing and protection. It is a brand which fell out of fashion and became ‘toxic’; but with effort, has proved to be enduring nevertheless.
This task has been made more complicated by government. Governments necessarily need to make difficult decisions, particularly when faced with such huge financial and economic problems. In the end, governments get rewarded for competence and effective delivery, but competence and delivery for the Conservative Party in government is not enough to win an outright majority at the next election.
In order to be positioned to win a majority at the next election, the Conservative Party needs to be perceived as having delivered in government – particularly on its central economic rescue mission. However, it also needs to be recognised, unequivocally, as a party that has continued to evolve as an open party that understands the modern world and is committed to a broad based social and economic agenda.
I wrote two articles for ConservativeHome in 2005 (here and here) in which I argued that: ‘For too long the Conservative Party has been a closed system – inward looking, engaged in a dialogue only with itself, deriving energy from internal conflict – rather than reaching out to the host community on which its survival depends – the British people. As a result its internal structures and modes of thinking have become incoherent and chaotic. In order to avoid the evolutionary fate of other ‘closed systems’ the Conservative Party needs to adapt itself rapidly; to open itself up to the networks of the modern world and once again become a force in the political universe.’
We have come a long way as a party since I wrote those words but there is much more work that needs to be done. We cannot afford to stand still and allow our opponents to define the Conservative Party in government in terms associated with its past. We must continue to embrace the future.
Now we are one year into government, we must move the debate beyond the need to cut the deficit to explaining our broader mission. We are reforming the welfare system to make the system fairer and make work pay; we are reforming our education system to help pupils in our most deprived areas and we are decentralising power from central to local government and communities to give people more control over their lives. These are all profoundly Conservative ideas. Successfully communicating our progressive agenda in government is central to the future electoral prospects of the party.
This is the central challenge of modern conservatism. We must use our experience in government as a way of jettisoning perceived stereotypes about the party, and not inadvertently, having them reinforced them as a result of the vagaries of the coalition or the pressures of government.