March 13, 2006

During the first 100 days of Cameron's leadership the Tories have gone up in the polls and received their best media coverage for years, yet many Tory activists are feeling deeply uneasy - Watlington explains why

Posted by Watlington

Under David Cameron's leadership, the Conservative Party is generally acknowledged to be in better shape than it has been for years. Yet many Conservative activists are feeling deeply uneasy. Watlington explains why. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

The Conservatives are up in opinion polls. The media are still treating the new Tory leader as a wunderkind. Labour are in disarray over sleaze and public service reform. And yet and yet. Despite the evident progress, many Conservatives share an uneasy feeling. It is as if Conservatives are flying in a supersonic shiny new airplane, unsure of where the journey will take them and feeling slightly queasy as a result.

The Cameron team have made one significant mistake. They have failed to distinguish between the reactionary right, who are against all forms of progress and still stuck in the glory days of the 1980s, and more thoughtful Conservatives, many of whom might have voted for David Davis, not necessarily because of his Thatcherite views, but because he embodied the modern Tory story of aspiration and merit against privilege and patronage.

Plenty of Conservatives support Mr Cameron's quest for social justice and desire to help the most disadvantaged in society, but are unsure about the PR aspects of the Cameroons. The Easterhouse modernisers (many of whom were supporters of Iain Duncan Smith's campaign to help the vulnerable when he was leader) believe that the very essence of Conservatism must be to elevate the condition of the people. They are less sure about not wearing ties, installing solar panels and drinking fair trade coffee at Central Office.

Of course Conservatives have to show they are really changing in every possible way. But too many gimmicks and change will come to be seen as just that: gimmickry. Mr Cameron has to show that far from being the heir of Blair he is a compassionate Conservative with substance and has deep rooted and enduring values.

Whilst it is true that reactionary Conservatives will never be consoled with the new leadership and many might float away to UKIP et al, this does not matter if Mr Cameron attracts a fair degree of floating voters in return. But the real danger is if he loses the mainstream of thoughtful Conservatives, many of whom are just unsure what modernisation means and at present feel discounted and ignored. Thoughtful Conservatives will not be simply appeased by a few tough noises about hunting foxes and some sceptical policies on Europe, as one Cameron aide seemed to suggest to the Sunday papers a few weeks ago. If these Conservatives are ignored for too long, or simply lumped in with the reactionary right, the likelihood is that that they too will stay at home at the next election causing immense damage to local party infrastructure and voting numbers.

If Mr Cameron is to solve this problem, he must go out of his way to explain to the broad mass of Conservatives what he is doing and why he needs to do it. The Cameron team like to model themselves on Mr Blair circa 1995-1997. But when Mr Blair was trying to change the party, he sent John Prescott around the country to explain to activists why changes had to be made. If he is to succeed, Mr Cameron needs to find someone who is trusted by the party activists to do the same job. Michael Ancram, a man who is deeply trusted and liked by Party members at large could be one such person. Tim Collins, former Shadow Education Secretary and ex MP for Westmoreland, could be brought out of the wilderness to perform such a role. Mr Collins is a brilliant orator and is regarded with affection by activists after a series of barnstorming conference speeches.

With the Parliamentary Party, Mr Cameron needs to do more to bring in MPs from the Major era. Most of the Tory MPs were elected before 2001 and many of them are walking around the Commons with slightly sore heads feeling that their careers are over and that they have been leapfrogged by the new intake. Of course the Conservative Party desperately needs new blood and rejuvenation; of course some of the older MPs have not always pulled their weight during the years of opposition. But many have and it is important to distinguish the good from the bad. Mr Cameron should pick a number of MPs from the 1987 and 1992 intake to work with him to smooth over ruffled feathers. Of course the odd grumbling here and there is inevitable, and doesn't really matter during the honey moon period. But when things get tough, Mr Cameron will need to stretch out beyond the new intake for support.

Finally Mr Cameron should set out why he became a Conservative in the first place. The commentariat and the public at large need to believe that alongside the evident stardust, the superb oratory, the remarkable PR, there is a man who has a passionate feeling to transform this country for the better and to change the world. He needs to show that he is a man with a mission and not just an immensely clever politician.

To read more by Watlington, see Watlington.

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