Cameron the new Major? Don’t buy that myth

The current issue for the Conservatives is discordance rather than disunity

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Divided political parties do not win elections.

There are few iron laws in politics, but this is one of them. In the late 1970s and into the 1990s, Labour was split and lost four elections in a row. Voters delivered almost the same brutal electoral punishment to the Conservatives post-1992 as they fell out over Europe.

So of all the opinion polls that have descended on David Cameron’s desk, yesterday’s in The Independent should worry him most. The poll suggested that voters regard his party as more divided than when John Major led it through a period of civil war in the mid-90s. If voters still perceive the Conservatives thus come the election, the Conservatives will not win.

There is, though, an important twist. In this particular case, the voters are wrong. By any objective measurement, the modern Conservative Party is incomparably more united than it was in the mid-1990s. In relation to that explosively emotive issue of Europe, it is worth recalling the views of Major’s Cabinet, not to mention his insurrectionary backbenchers.

Major’s two most senior Cabinet ministers were Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine, passionate pro-Europeans. Below them were equally ardent Eurosceptics including Michael Portillo. If Clarke uttered a word in favour of Europe, Portillo would arrange to be doorstepped by TV cameras in order to deliver a soundbite that argued the opposite. Tory MPs were rarely out of radio and TV studios arguing over Europe, and all the while Margaret Thatcher was hovering mischievously.

In contrast, the Tory wing of Cameron’s Cabinet is broadly united in support of his proposed referendum. Of course, this is a fragile strategy and it will turn into a nightmare if Cameron wins the election, but that is for later. For now, the likes of Clarke speak for a minority. They were a significant force in the Major era.

The same applies to all the other key areas of policy. The current public spending round will be bloody, as departmental Cabinet ministers theoretically opposed to government expenditure discover its worth. But nearly all Tory MPs support, at least in theory, George Osborne’s unique economic experiment, cutting spending in real terms at a point when the private sector is fairly moribund and when there is fading demand from markets in Europe.

Given the lack of tangible success arising from this policy and the growing doubts of august bodies such as the IMF, the unity is remarkable. For sure, there are some Tory MPs calling for tax cuts and for more spending reduction, an argument to the right of an already right-wing economic policy, but this is not a divide of significance. And, anyway, in his clunky, transparent way, Osborne will announce tax cuts in his pre-election Budget that will partially satisfy his MPs. Largely, there is Tory unity also in other highly charged, contentious policy areas such as welfare and education. This was very different in the mid 1990s when the Major government was defeated regularly on issues such as increases in VAT to domestic fuel.

In policy terms, at least in the key areas that determine elections, Cameron leads a more or less united party. Would there be significant policy changes if Johnson, Gove or Hammond led them? I doubt it.

The current issue for the Conservatives is discordance rather than disunity. The party is united on policies that are rooted on the right but Cameron is convinced, or used to be, that a party can win elections only by being on the centre ground. As a result of this yearning, Cameron has at various points in his leadership done the following: taken his lead from Tony Blair in terms of style and policy; happily formed a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats; and supported gay marriage. He has done all these things sincerely but also because they provide a counter to charges of the Tories being the “nasty” party. Cameron ring-fences the budget for international development for the same reason. None of these will be a significant issue at the general election but all of them get his activists and some MPs so worked up that an impression of disunity is created. But it’s a false impression. Indeed, the Tories are more unified than Labour or the Lib Dems. Labour is divided over economic policy, public service reform and the best strategy to win. The Lib Dems disagree on the economy, “localism” and the role of markets. Yet these two parties display impressive public discipline, while the Conservatives fall out even when they agree.

In the light of The Independent’s poll, Cameron has a very big strategic decision to make. Either he can stress that he and his party walk together, hand in hand, more united than the other parties in their approach to Europe, the economy and public services. Or he can return to his early days as leader when he looked longingly at the centre ground and tried fitfully to move towards it. In trying to do both, he faces the worst of all worlds – perceived as leading a divided party and yet failing to woo non-Tories alienated by right-wing and Eurosceptic policies. Both courses carry risks and benefits but my guess is that he will continue to straddle them. This latest poll will not be the last that points to a deeply divided party that is anything but.

Twitter: @steverichards14