Review of the year: The Tories

A party galvanised by youth

If anyone had predicted, a year ago, that the Tories would end 2005 ahead in the polls, thanks to a 39-year-old leader with fewer than five years' parliamentary experience under his belt, the men in white coats would have been summoned.

The Tories' prospects have been so transformed that Labour's third decisive victory on 5 May has become but a distant memory. It is hard to recall the dire straits in which the Tories began the year. Flatlining in the polls, they suffered the ignominy, in January, of the defection to Labour of Robert Jackson, the MP for Wantage. But Mr Jackson was standing down at the election, so the bad headlines proved to be only a minor irritant for the party leader, Michael Howard.

He was busy concentrating on refining the "dog whistle" issues, such as immigration and illegal gypsy sites, dreamed up for him by Lynton Crosby, his Australian policy guru. Mr Crosby's influence in the run-up to the general election was to prove decisive in the handling of the dismissal both from the front bench and from Parliament of Howard Flight, a hitherto little-known Tory MP, on the eve of the election campaign. Mr Crosby's aggressive style assisted Mr Howard in the enforcement of unity and discipline that became the principal achievement of his two-year caretaker leadership.

Mr Flight made a speech, recorded by Labour spies, at a private dinner, suggesting that Tory tax cuts would eventually turn out to be much greater than the £4bn publicly promised publicly by Oliver Letwin, the then Shadow Chancellor. Mr Howard was concerned that Labour would use this speech to tell voters that it meant that there was a Tory secret agenda to cut public services by £30bn over the lifetime of a Parliament. Mr Flight immediately apologised for his gaffe and resigned his junior front-bench post.

The "dog whistle" issues during the early part of the year provided the background against which the Tory manifesto "Are you thinking what we're thinking? - It's time for action" was published. This was a short document that distilled a populist message around five themes: more police, cleaner hospitals, lower taxes, school discipline and controlled immigration. But the election campaign became dominated by Mr Howard's personal concentration on immigration that overshadowed the other messages.

The election result was another disappointment. The Tories barely increased their share of the vote over 1997 and 2001. They polled 33 per cent but managed to win an extra 32 seats - largely thanks to an increase in the Lib Dem vote in Labour-held marginals.

Mr Howard announced his "long goodbye" the day after the election and set in train a leadership campaign that was to last seven months. But first there was a cack-handed attempt to change the rules for the leadership election by restricting the franchise solely to MPs. The summer saw chaotic rows between MPs and the party hierarchy and the issues of discipline and control of MPs became entwined with the leadership rules. It was not until the week before the party conference that the previous rules allowing the membership to retain the final say between the top two candidates were finally confirmed. This was a defeat for Mr Howard but, perversely, it enabled the party conference a week later to become a positive media showcase for the party and all the leadership contenders.

From the moment of Mr Howard's announcement of his intention to step down, his shadow home affairs spokesman, David Davis, became the favourite to succeed. Mr Davis had successfully seen off the Lib Dem attempt, in their failed 'decapitation' strategy, to unseat him in his marginal Yorkshire constituency and, although up to a dozen other rivals tested the water during the summer, he was assumed to be unbeatable. In late August Kenneth Clarke launched his third bid to lead the party and temporarily monopolised the silly season media coverage as the only credible rival to Mr Davis.

Days before the Tories gathered in Blackpool Mr Davis and Mr Cameron launched their respective campaigns within an hour of each other. Mr Davis's launch was wooden and pedestrian compared to an exciting and slick performance from Mr Cameron - who spoke without notes. The media were immediately excited and looked forward to a repeat performance at the conference. Mr Cameron's conference speech excited the enfranchised membership while Mr Davis bombed.

The series of parliamentary ballots established Mr Cameron as the new favourite and, after six weeks of hustings and TV debates with Mr Davis, he won a decisive mandate to change the Tories. Mr Cameron is a blank canvas but the sense of momentum suggests the outlines of a serious Tory revival that has genuinely unnerved Labour - especially Gordon Brown - for the first time since 1992.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss