The Tories are still struggling to come to terms with the new order

The Tories are still struggling to come to terms with the new order

The Tories are still struggling to come to terms with the new order

David Cameron has never really settled the hash with the right in his party. The argument is just waiting to erupt
Andrew Rawnsley
For the third year in a row, a “champagne ban” has been imposed at the Conservative conference. Two years ago, the fizz was forbidden for fear that voters would gag at the spectacle of Tories carousing while the financial markets were in meltdown. Last year, they worried about looking like people who were taking election victory for granted. Conservatives might have hoped for a relaxation on the prohibition this year so that they could celebrate attending their first conference for 14 years as a party of government. But high command has yet again told them to leave the Bolly in the ice bucket, not least because it would look terrible to be seen quaffing champers when the chancellor will soon unveil the severest squeeze on public spending in decades.
The “champagne ban” does not actually mean that none will be consumed in Birmingham. What is really forbidden is being seen with a flute in hand anywhere near a photographer or a TV camera. Still, the “ban” is symbolic of the state of the Conservative party. They gather in Birmingham uncertain about what they should be toasting. Yes, they are back in power, but in a coalition which virtually none of them expected, which leaves many of them uncomfortable and makes some of them very angry. They did not expect the long years of opposition to end in a house-share with the Lib Dems.
The price of coalition has included dumping policies – inheritance tax cuts, demanding sovereignty back from Europe, rewarding marriage – which were very popular with Tory activists. Worse, the well-founded suspicion among them is that David Cameron was only too glad that coalition gave him an excuse to ditch policies that he never truly believed in. Yes, they have a Tory prime minister, his approval ratings are buoyant and they will give him a long standing ovation on Wednesday when he delivers his leader’s speech.
But precisely where he plans to take them in the longer term is a continuing source of angst. I have spoken to extremely senior Tory members of the government who can envisage going into the next election asking the country not for an exclusive mandate for the Conservatives but inviting the nation to re-elect the coalition, a concept that is anathema at the moment to most Tories.
Ken Clarke, previously a coalition-sceptic, tells us in his interview with today’s Observer that he is becoming converted to governing with the “jolly” Lib Dems as a means of achieving more than a purely Tory government would have done. Most Conservatives would still much prefer their party to be governing alone, which makes David Cameron’s evident enthusiasm for his partnership with Nick Clegg the more baffling to them. No less than Labour or the Lib Dems – arguably, more so – the Tories are struggling to come to terms with the new order of things.
Questions of identity are the overarching theme of this conference season. The Liberal Democrats spent their week in Liverpool acclimatising to their newfound status as a party of power and all the pleasure, pain and unpopularity that goes with that. In Manchester, Labour brought down the curtain on the long era of Blair and Brown to set off on a journey into the unknown under a young and half-formed new leader. The Conservatives too are riddled with identity anxiety. The superficial displays of conference unity will be a mask on a mass of unresolved internal arguments.
One source of tension is their election defeat. Yes, I did write defeat. Maybe I exaggerate a little for effect, but the Tory performance at the election was certainly not a victory. A vote share of under 37% was a very poor result for the Conservatives in the context of the May contest. They fielded a young leader who was good on television. He was up against a visibly exhausted prime minister who was a terrible communicator. Labour was an elderly and often disunited government which had presided over the worst recession since the 1930s. In that highly promising environment, how could the Tories fail to sweep back to power? And yet fail they did. To the vote share achieved by Michael Howard against Tony Blair five years previously, they managed to add less than 4%.
If you bring this up in conversation, senior Tories tend to crinkle their noses as if you have just released an unpleasant smell. They really don’t like to be reminded by how much they fell short of clinching the confidence of the country. No public postmortem has been conducted into their election performance. But privately Tories still agonise about it. The “Big Society” was impossible to explain to voters, say some; the parliamentary expenses scandal did great damage, argue others; they should never have agreed to the leaders’ TV debates, contend many.
Those tactical issues are the froth on the top of the big strategic question which still splits the Tories. The most persuasive explanation for their election failure is that David Cameron implemented enough modernisation of his party to win the most seats, but it was not sufficiently deep or convincing to win over the crucial extra support necessary for the Tories to govern alone. That analysis is broadly shared by Cameroons, but it is flatly rejected by the right of the party. For them, the Tories did not do well enough because they were not Tory enough. In their view, David Cameron was too weak on themes such as crime, immigration and tax cuts. This argument does not account for why the Tories did even worse when they served up the right’s agenda in 2001 and 2005. It isn’t very convincing and yet it is a view widely held in the Conservative party.
David Cameron has never really settled the hash with the right in his party. His argument with them has largely gone subterranean since the election, but it waits to erupt again when times get tough for the coalition. Indeed we can already see it being played out in some of the battles over spending. When the coalition was first formed, it was conventional to assume that the fault line through it would be Tories versus Lib Dems. I suggested to you back in July that this was far too simplistic. As things have turned out, blue-yellow is not even the most important divide through the government. The truly ferocious internal struggles are not being waged between Lib Dems and Tories, but between Tories and Tories. The most significant disputes are between Conservatives with differing priorities, temperaments and philosophies.
Lib Dem members of the cabinet privately joke that the most liberal member of the coalition is not a member of their party. It is Ken Clarke. The justice secretary pleases them while enraging the authoritarian right of his own party with proposals to reform penal policy which, if implemented, will fashion the most liberal approach to justice in about two decades.
The cabinet members who have been most rebellious against an immigration cap are not Lib Dems, but laissez-faire Tories such as Michael Gove. At a meeting of the cabinet’s domestic affairs committee, it was Nick Clegg, as the committee’s chairman, who found himself in the ironic position of having to tell Tory ministers that the cap could not be abandoned because it is in the coalition agreement. George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith have warred for weeks over welfare reform. David Cameron has had to intervene in an attempt to keep the work and pensions secretary “on the reservation”. That battle has been less philosophical and more an argument about the practicality and affordability of Mr Duncan Smith’s ideas.
The rawest and most public struggle over spending is between Liam Fox at the Ministry of Defence and the chancellor. Scratch most Conservative members and you will find, at the core of their identity, the belief that they are, above all else, the party of the nation and the defence of the realm. It is to this sentiment that Liam Fox is playing in a way that has left both Number 10 and the Treasury incandescent.
The defence secretary says he is also cross about the leak of his letter to the prime minister which warned that the Treasury’s “draconian” demands for cuts will put in danger both the armed forces and the Conservative party’s reputation. When I saw him on television, the defence secretary seemed to me like a man trying and failing to look angry. He is prompting the right to ask why a Conservative-led government is protecting the budgets of the NHS and international aid while proposing to mess with the nuclear deterrent, the navy and the air force.
In his conference speech, David Cameron will doubtless attack Labour while seeking to reassure the sceptics about his partnership with the Lib Dems. Yet his greatest present anxiety, and the most immediate threat to the harmony of the coalition, is not red on blue or yellow on blue. The largest menace to the government’s unity is blue on blue.
The updated edition of Andrew Rawnsley’s bestseller
The End of the Party is out now. Andrew interviews Iain Duncan Smith MP at the Tory party conference, 6pm Tuesday 5 October

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