Cameron the new Major? Don’t buy that myth

The current issue for the Conservatives is discordance rather than disunity

Share

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

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

Andrew Grice
 

When a small amount of desk space means the world

Rebecca Armstrong
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own