Heed this warning or risk terminal decline

Published in The Independent (November 20th, 2013)

The tragedy of the Conservative Party is that when things get tough it has a suicidal tendency to retreat into its comfort zone. We saw it under William Hague, then Michael Howard and now, sadly, we see signs of it under David Cameron. After the gay marriage triumph that upset a few people living in the past, we have heard little other than those favourite old themes of bashing burglars, slashing taxes, cutting benefits and sending immigrants home.

This is depressing for members who want their party to inhabit the messy, fast-evolving modern world. These are the people so enthusiastic about those deleted speeches the Prime Minister gave in opposition about rebuilding communities, rehabilitating criminals and reforming vested interests. Clearly, the election proved party modernisation was incomplete. So even when they agree with policies such as restricting benefits, they want to hear moderate messages aimed at those fleeing female and younger voters.

Nick Boles was one of the earliest and most perceptive proponents of Tory modernisation. This explains why earlier this year he rounded on the ‘truly rotten’ campaign that flopped so embarrassingly in the Eastleigh by-election, pointing out tough messages designed to see off Ukip harked back to Michael Howard’s campaign in 2005. Yesterday, he told Bright Blue that when today’s Britain looks at the Conservative Party it sees an old-fashioned monolith.

The planning minister’s carefully-crafted speech was dressed up with attacks on his coalition partners, of course, pointing out correctly how they have abandoned any pretence of liberalism with their statist opposition to public sector reform. This showed how someone who initially relished coalition has come to see that it has proved disastrous for his party, prodding it to the right and painting it in reactionary colours.

His argument was astute in suggesting the Tories should revive the National Liberal Party brand in order to build coalitions before, rather than after, elections. This idea reflects the digital age and obvious breakdown in political discipline, with MPs increasingly loyal to constituents over party. It is hardly a new concept: Michael Heseltine, for instance, stood under this banner in his first election contest.

But at heart this speech was a reminder the Tories have lost two elections by lurching to the right and are in danger of repeating the mistake. Once again, Lynton Crosby is at the helm – and there is a dearth of strong voices in Downing Street to counter his antediluvian approach. They need to remember immigrant families are even moving into the safest Surrey seats – and not being white remains the best predictor a person will not vote Conservative. If the party does not heed Boles’s subtle warning, it might not just lose the next election. It might even put itself out of business.

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