David Cameron looks on Benjamin Disraeli as a hero. I haven't visited the graveyard of Hughenden parish church of late, but I imagine gasps of astonished admiration issuing forth from the founder of modern Conservatism. For Cameron has pulled off a coup in some ways modelled on Disraeli's masterstroke in "dishing the Whigs" and projecting himself into the premiership in 1868. The longer-term effect in rebranding the Tory party may be of similar consequence.
A quick historical interlude. In 1846 the Tories split. Essentially at issue was whether the party should remain a protection society for the old landed interest, or seek to encompass an expanding middle class whose political magnet was the new Liberal Party, a rainbow coalition of Whig aristocrats, new industrialists, radical reformers and religious Nonconformists.
The Whigs-Liberals dominated the two decades after 1846, subject to bouts of exhaustion and personality clashes which yielded brief coalition or minority Tory governments. In 1866 came another such episode, as the Liberals fell out over plans to extend the vote to a larger proportion of the middle and skilled working class. This was a Liberal cause par excellence, and few expected other than another brief Tory minority government while the Liberals regrouped under their charismatic leader, Gladstone.
But Disraeli had other ideas. Deputy Tory leader and chief strategist under Lord Derby, Disraeli persuaded Derby to seize the initiative and introduce a bolder Reform Bill than the Liberals'. With brilliant dexterity, and some Liberal support, the Bill passed, modern "Tory democracy" was born, Disraeli was twice prime minister, and the rebranded Conservatives became an equal competitor for power.
The two points to note are Disraeli's "do whatever it takes" tactics to seize power, and the rebranding of the Tories as a new Lib-Con party. Cameron has just accomplished the first; he is now embarked on the second.
There are rival interpretations of the 6 May election result. Rarely has Lord Salisbury's dictum on the electorate been more true: "When the great oracle speaks, no one is quite sure what the great oracle said." However, the oracle gave the Tories neither an overall majority, nor the likelihood of being able to outvote the other parties on the Queen's Speech. The media pronounced that Labour had "lost" so should hand over the keys to No 10 immediately. But on the Friday Cameron grasped that the Tories had also lost, and without a bold initiative the best they could achieve was (in George Osborne's words this week) to "bluff our way into a minority government" with hazardous survival prospects.
So Cameron did a Disraeli, sweeping Nick Clegg off his feet and presenting him with an ever larger hoard of gifts, including the referendum on the alternative vote which Lib Dems prize above all. By this means – after five days of alarums and excursions – Hughenden Man persuaded Clegg to put him in office. In the process, Cameron also hopes to have isolated his own right wing and appropriated Liberal branding so that he, too, is seen as leading a new centrist Lib-Con party able to win a majority against Labour.
As for the Lib Dems, who suffered the greatest disappointment on 6 May, their right side is already half consumed by Cameron, and their larger left is now prey to Labour, the Greens, and, no doubt, a breakaway "true Liberal" party hereafter. A similar fate befell the Liberals when they last formed a peacetime coalition with the Tories, but that is another story.
Lord Adonis was transport secretary in the Labour governmentReuse content