For a journalist supposed to be close to the Cameroons, Janan Ganesh daringly broaches the touchiest of subjects – the failure of the Conservative Party to win a majority at the last general election.
To even raise the issue at the Tory top table is to cause a scene that only HM Bateman could have done justice to. But undeterred, Ganesh devotes his column in the Financial Times to 2010 and all that, describing the electoral outcome as the “original sin” to which David Cameron’s current problems can be traced back:
- “Mr Cameron has never openly addressed the question of why he fell short in 2010. Yet the battle to interpret that result is shaping his present and will influence the party’s choice of an eventual successor. For Tories, it is a reference-point election in the way 1992 was for the Labour party. Through abstention by Mr Cameron and other modernisers, this battle is being won by his tormentors on the right.
- “The abridged version of the right’s account blames 2010 on a shoddy campaign that ignored conservative issues such as tax cuts and especially immigration in favour of esoteric waffle about the ‘Big Society’. This was compounded by his foolish participation in televised debates that he flunked.”
Ganesh offers an alternative interpretation. In doing so he only gets the story half right, but it is a very good half:
- “By the time the formal election campaign began in April of that year, hopes of an overall parliamentary majority were already fading. The Tories’ poll lead had been dwindling since the previous autumn, which was when the party began to elucidate its plan to cut the fiscal deficit more aggressively than Labour would. This candour was admirable and far-sighted… but even at the time the Tories feared it would cost them votes. And it did.”
This is an absolutely crucial point. The austerity message took centre stage at the 2009 Conservative Party annual conference, and it was from then on that the Conservative lead in the polls began to crumble.
Ganesh doesn’t seek to excuse the “haplessness” of the actual campaign, which he calls a “shapeless farce”; but contrary to what some people claim to remember it wasn’t all about the Big Society (which only “took up a single day in the Tory ‘grid’”). And for all the disruption caused by the TV debates, “the Tories ended it with roughly the same poll lead over Labour as they began it.”
In other words, the chance of a majority was blown in the months leading up to the campaign not during it:
- “The real reason for the Tories’ failure had more to do with the economic insecurity that nagged at voters when shown blueprints for austerity by a party they already mistrusted… Fiscal clarity made for bad short-term politics, and yet the blame has somehow gone to other, softer aspects of the Tory offering.
- “The Conservatives did not fail because they were seen as high-minded metropolitans, but because they were too redolent of the same old Tories. They had changed too little, not too much. The people who should have been vindicated by 2010 were the modernisers.”
And this is where Janan Ganesh gets it wrong. Yes, austerity was a tough sell, but people were ready to be assured that it was necessary – the only way of leading Britain back to safety after the chaos caused by Gordon Brown and the bankers. But, instead of balancing the austerity message with a ‘security’ message, it was combined with an Obama-style ‘change’ message – as if austerity was something to look forward too and get excited about.
As for the specific slogans and images, they were all wrong too – such as “we’re all in it together” (yeah, right), “invitation to join the government of Great Britain” (huh?) and that bizarre poster of a seemingly air-brushed and botox’d David Cameron (ugh!). To this this day, the Cameroons continue to believe that their economic medicine can be sweetened with more of that “high-minded metropolitan” sugar. But they’re wrong.
Yes, people will vote for fiscal sanity, but after all the recklessness, greed and incompetence of the previous decade, what they want in return isn’t social liberalism, but social justice.