Brand detox remains the Tories’ prime task

Published in the Financial Times (January 4th, 2011)

After weeks of muttering and coded articles, the new year has arrived with hostile outbursts against the coalition from within its ranks. One Tory backbencher caused a stir by claiming “purple plotters” were trying to blend together his party and the Liberal Democrats, blaming fundamentalists for seeking to destroy his party.

His call to arms was taken up by the influential editor of the ConservativeHome website, who has questioned if his party would soon cease to exist. “The battle to save the Conservative party has begun,” he thundered in the Daily Mail. Leading members of the old guard have joined the fray, sniping from the sidelines over prison reform and control orders. There have even been suggestions that the party’s very essence is threatened by a modernising cabal undermining centuries of history.

The attacks come at an awkward time, just as the imposition of higher value added tax marks the moment spending cuts start to hit home. Divisions never look good, even in coalition. Indeed, one of the missed opportunities presented by the coalition formation was the chance to encourage more mature, open political debate.

Senior Tory figures contend these do not amount to much more than an annoyance, believing there are few genuine malcontents. “A dozen at most,” said one cabinet minister. The Tories have won the economic argument over the need for cuts and feel boosted by Labour leader Ed Miliband’s hesitant start. The greater danger comes on the left flank of the coalition amid plummeting public support for the Lib Dems.

Discussion of the coalition’s role at the next election is inevitable, given that politics is in such flux. But Disraeli can rest easy in his grave: the Conservative party is not threatened by extinction just yet as some of its more voluble internal critics suggest. The assumption among senior Tories is that the two parties will fight the next election on separate platforms, but the tone of debate will be politer than at previous polls. Many local party activists would not stand for the imposition of candidates from another party.

This anger bubbling over about the coalition, however, reveals two important things. First, despite admiration for Nick Clegg in the Tory party, traditional tribal hostilities remain firmly in place. It does not take long to find antagonism at local level; it has calcified in the bones of many activists over decades of bitter battles.

At Westminster there are widely differing attitudes to coalition, as vividly demonstrated to me in two recent conversations. A leading Tory backbencher smiled as he talked of how the coalition would destroy the Lib Dems as an electoral force for a generation. One hour later, a key Downing Street figure spoke passionately of how the coalition added an extra layer to every political decision but was leading to better government. He was horrified at talk of tactical advantage.

Second, the backlash reveals many Conservatives have still failed to heed the lessons of the past. The overwhelming issue at the moment is the economy, followed by public services, but still some figures on the right harp on about Europe and immigration, the very issues that made floating voters wary at elections in the past decade-and-a-half.

At the last election, the electorate got the result it wanted with exquisitely precise arithmetic. Voters wanted rid of Gordon Brown, but did not fully trust the Conservatives, especially on public services. Strenuous efforts to “detoxify” the Tory brand failed to pay off – and a Lib Dem “brake” was imposed in government.

The result is a coalition government. This meant both sides dropping cherished policies – although as David Laws has written, it also meant a more powerful set of policies than either party originally sought to deliver. The Conservatives adopted a more sensible approach to crime and immigration, while the Lib Dems grew up on the deficit. Their subsequent problems arose from a lack of honesty over why they switched tack on tuition fees.

The biggest concern for the Tories is not an excess of liberalism in government. It is that the government has to present progressive measures as concessions to the Lib Dems following their meltdown in opinion polls. This can make the Conservatives appear reactionary when many issues are, in reality, cutting across party lines in cabinet. The alliance between Mr Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith was vital for ensuring welfare reform was not stymied by lack of cash, while there are critics of the immigration cap, control orders, and traditional law and order policies among leading Tories as well as Lib Dems.

But as it is, the need to shore up the Lib Dems and the impression this gives of an unreconstructed Conservative party make it harder to persuade floating voters to return to the fold at the next election. The decontamination of the Tory brand remains the central issue for the party – not its death.

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