By Dilsher Singh
Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister and recently Jacob Rees-Mogg MP in his first tweet have very aptly used the famous Latin quote tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. (Translation: Times change and we change with them) But does it apply to the Conservative Party?
As a student, I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t heard the words Nasty Party or THE TORIES in an antagonistic tone. The reputation the conservative party had during the 90’s has very much been alive. To my utter surprise, these circumlocutions or so-called zingers have taken the place of factual political debate and in some cases academic debates as well. The labels are often used to put down factual arguments.
The 90’s saw some of the worst times for the conservative party in terms of electoral results. An absolute decimation in the 1997 election was followed by poor performance in the upcoming two general elections. The Labour PR machine, led by Alastair Campbell, successfully spun the Conservative Party into the electoral wilderness. The Conservative Party was portrayed as an analog player in a digital age. It was clear that the party needed severe rebranding.
Was there a need of a more compassionate Conservative Party? Would there be a leader who would be willing to face the staunch revolt of his backbench? What would it finally take to get the Conservative Party back into power after three consecutive general election losses?
The modernisation of the Conservative party began after the party leadership election in 2005. There was a clear need of a change in internal party politics. The party would be unelectable if it didn’t provide a more progressive front. The fact that a young David Cameron, who had no government experience, defeated a party stalwart such as David Davis with 68% of the postal vote was enough evidence to prove that the party members were done with the status quo. The launch of his leadership bid saw him talking more about internal reform of the party and its politics.
Modernisation wasn’t just about the policies but also about the people representing the party on the front bench. The shadow cabinet saw the political soundness and pragmatic economic conservatism with a young George Osborne as Shadow Chancellor, who not only was a key ally of Cameron, but also a forward thinking political strategist with broad support in Westminster. At the same time, William Hague as shadow foreign secretary brought years of experience and influence to the table.
The modern conservative party also focused on using public relations as a strong tool to portray that it was in touch. A very right wing Conservative Party had lost touch with the electorate. The modern conservative party changed its rhetoric from being about old conservative policies to actually reaching broad consensus in Westminster and amongst voters. The rhetoric on welfare changed from cuts to REFORM. The same was done with education and the NHS.
A modern Conservative party had a touch of pragmatic self interest to gain power and remain in it. While this meant being progressive and less right wing, it never meant abandoning its core Conservative principles. The Conservatives didn’t abandon their core; they remained resolute on tuition fees, spending cuts and deficit reduction. The party was willing to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and take a more progressive stance in order to remain in power. Despite the backbench opposing this at first, the fact remains that this very coalition led to the Conservative Party forming a majority government in 2015 while decimating not only Labour but the Liberal Democrats too.
The modern Conservative redefined conservatism in Britain through their policies. The party became increasingly socially liberal, with the David Cameron leading the way for gay marriage laws. The ability of the party leadership to actually go against its own backbench was the sign of the reform that the party was undergoing. The leadership was far more interested in achieving a broad consensus rather than keeping a certain wing of the backbench happy.
Times changed since the 90’s and it took a new style of leadership in order to make the Conservative party to change with them. The modernisation of the conservative party is synonymous with its electoral capability. Modern Conservatism is no longer about keeping a backbench happy or being unreasonable, it’s about compromise while sticking to its core principles and remaining in power. The Party would do well to remember that when 2022 comes around.