Magazine article The Spectator

Now That the Election Is over, Let the Arguments and Explosions Begin

Magazine article The Spectator

Now That the Election Is over, Let the Arguments and Explosions Begin

Article excerpt

'He who controls the past, controls the future' as George Orwell reminded us. This means that a battle breaks out in every party after every election to explain the result, to determine which policies helped and which policies hindered. Win or lose, the various factions inside parties race to establish a narrative that is helpful to their cause.

Straight after Labour's landslide win in 1997, it was declared that 'we campaigned as New Labour and we will govern as New Labour'. The Blairites were so eager to establish this point that they even considered putting it into the Queen's speech. The message to the left of the party was clear: the massive majority was a result of the new outlook that Tony Blair had imposed on the party and in government there would be no going back to the party's traditional positions.

If David Cameron has kissed the Queen's hand by the time you read this (The Spectator went to press with the result hideously uncertain), he will be tempted to deliver his own version of this message. Cameron ran for the leadership in 2005 on the slogan 'change to win'. His supporters will be keen to hail any victory as vindication of the Cameron project. He will wish to say, 'We changed, and we won.' The implication will be 'stick with me, I'm a winner and if we lurch to the right, we'll lose'.

Disgruntled backbenchers also have their counter-narrative ready: Labour's failures meant that this was an election the Tory party should have won comfortably. For the race to be so close is an indictment of the modernising strategy. The party won the economic battle with Labour in the opening days of the campaign thanks to a classic Conservative argument: don't put up taxes, cut wasteful spending instead. Then the Liberal Democrats surged until Cameron hit Clegg in the final debate over his support for entry into the euro, an amnesty for illegal immigrants and putting VAT on new homes. This, along with Gordon Brown's dismissal of voters concerned about immigration as 'bigots', was what won it, they'll say. They will use this to maintain that traditional Tory arguments on tax, Europe and immigration win votes, not husky-hugging and grandiose declarations about the Big Society.

Both arguments contain some truth. If Cameron had not gone out of his way at the beginning of his leadership to demonstrate that he was a different kind of Conservative, then his robust language on immigration in the final debate might have prompted a backlash. It is also worth remembering that during the first debate, which triggered the Lib Dem surge, Cameron sounded like just another Tory leader. He didn't even mention the Big Society agenda. Indeed, he said nothing that you would not expect a traditional Tory leader to say. There were - to use the phrase beloved of the modernisers - 'no counter intuitive change messages'.

But there's no denying that the leadership's desire at the beginning of the year to talk about immigration as little as possible was a political misjudgment. It might have been catastrophic had it not been for Mrs Duffy's intervention.

The great achievement of Cameron's leadership to date has been realising that the Thatcherite and One Nation traditions of the party were not contradictory but complementary - for example, he grasped that the best way to improve the life chances of poor children was a supply-side revolution in education. The much-derided 'Big Society' agenda is a product of that understanding, a massive programme of social renewal that does not rely exclusively on the state. But the task facing Cameron now is to combine his style of conservatism with his party's core beliefs. …

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