The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, By Tim Bale

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The Independent Culture

Once the Conservatives won elections with their eyes closed. Then they started to behave as if they wanted to lose. This book explains why and in doing so hits upon a wider theme, one that runs as a sinister undercurrent from the beginning to the end.

On one level, the Conservatives had no choice but to lose. There was very little the party and its supposedly mighty leaders could do about it. A new leader of any party must seek to match traditional values with a broad appeal to the electorate. Sometimes he or she is unable to make the attempt, too constrained by context, the immediate past and their own beliefs. Outsiders in the media ask often in relation to struggling leaders: "Why don't they do x,y and z? If they did they could win the election". The answer is simple. Quite often a leader cannot do x,y and z and might not want to do so.

After their defeat in 1997 the Conservatives elected a series of leaders uniquely ill equipped to widen their narrow appeal. Voters had become alienated by what New Labour described as the "lurch to the right". The Conservatives responded by electing the most right-wing and Eurosceptic candidate available in two contests, first William Hague and then Iain Duncan Smith. Finally in desperation they turned to Michael Howard, who shared his two predecessors' intense hostility to Europe and was hardly associated with the vaguely defined ideas of the party's modernisers.

In each case Tim Bale points out that the leaders did begin by making some sort of gesture towards change but on the whole all three adopted policies and highlighted issues that ensured the Conservatives headed for the cliff's edge. A party and leader are rigidly linked, the one shedding light on the other. Labour could not have elected a Tony Blair-type figure in 1983 because it was miles away from embracing Blairite rootless, populist expediency. By 1994, after more defeats and radical internal reforms, it was ready to make the leap in order to win elections.

Blair's election revealed as much about the Labour party as it did about Blair. Until 2005, the Conservative party was so determinedly Eurosceptic and gripped by the centrality of tax cuts, it was never going to elect a leader with a broader appeal. The only candidate popular with the wider electorate, Ken Clarke, used to joke that his hobby was losing leadership contests. If he had won, the Conservative party would have changed radically. The fact that it had not changed meant he was doomed to lose.

Bale argues that before David Cameron, Michael Howard, had the most space to reform the party. Howard was made leader unelected in 2003 in the midst of the crisis over Iain Duncan Smith, the self- proclaimed quiet man. A senior Conservative is quoted as suggesting that if Howard had proposed to re-nationalise the steel industry he would have got away with it. But soon Howard did what Hague and Duncan Smith had done. He chose to focus on the "dog whistle" issues of immigration, crime and Europe, partly because he was most comfortable with this agenda. It was partly because he was comfortable with such issues that he was elected unopposed as leader in the first place. Parties and leaders dance together, towards victory or defeat.

The immediately interesting question is the degree to which Cameron's election in 2005 indicated finally that the party was moving from its past. On this, Bale is rightly sceptical. He accepts that Cameron and the small group who rule the party are genuine modernisers, but also points to the limits of their zeal for change. They are socially liberal, but in many ways retain a Thatcherite outlook in relation to "tax and spend", the role of the state and Europe. Tonally, Cameron is unreocgnisably different from his predecessors. In policy terms, there are far more echoes.

Even so, the differences have alarmed some influential columnists and leader writers, the Conservative party in the media as Bale describes them. The book points out that in some pivotal episodes the journalists held more sway than virtually any other group, from the shadow cabinet to the membership. Nearly always, the pressure in the media is for the Conservatives to move further rightwards towards defeat.

On the whole, Hague got a good press when he acquired a crew cut and paid homage to Thatcherism, the phase in his leadership in which he chose to lose. The history of New Labour cannot be written without taking account of the enormous influence exerted by certain newspapers and proprietors. The same applies to the Conservatives. In some cases, the same newspapers and proprietors were exerting influence on both parties simultaneously, a separate case study for another author.

Some of the accounts of New Labour's long transition from opposition to power became manuals on how to win elections. Cameron and George Osborne were two of the avid learners. In this book, there are no lessons about winning, but there are a mountain of insights about the tiny amount of space in which political leaders make their moves.

Failure in politics is often more interesting than success, especially in the case of the Conservative party: the great vote- winning machine of the 20th century that embarked on a path in which defeat was unavoidable.