Andrew Grice: Cameron has yet to earn the love of the Conservative Party

Inside Politics

Related Topics

In his Commons office, David Cameron has artists' drawings of two previous Tory leaders: Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan. Why not Margaret Thatcher?

In a revealing BBC interview this week, Mr Cameron told the journalist Peter Oborne: "The Conservative Party should both revere her [Baroness Thatcher's] inheritance and what she did, and also move on and draw on some of the history of conservatism, which is about society as well as the economy, and which does have this One Nation tradition of wanting to bring the country together at its heart."

In his speech to his party conference this month, the Tory leader set out to prove there is no internal contradiction in his self-styled "progressive conservatism". But he muddied the waters by making his main theme a pledge to end Labour's culture of "big government".

I asked a senior Tory on the party's left flank whether he regards Mr Cameron as a fellow liberal Conservative. He paused. "I think so," he said, adding that he felt reassured by that picture of Macmillan, Prime Minister from 1957-63, who would certainly be labelled "progressive" today.

My liberal Tory described Mr Cameron as a pragmatist who would make a socially liberal prime minister even if he is a "fiscal conservative". That could be an attractive mix for many voters given the dire economic straits we're in, as yesterday's gloomy economic figures reinforced. Yet he conceded the potential contradiction in Mr Cameron blaming Britain's ills on Labour's "big government" and his commitment to a progressive agenda.

There is frustration in the Cameron inner-circle that his conference speech, while generally well received, did not win plaudits from liberal commentators. One leading Cameroon complained to me: "They only heard half the message. They closed their ears to the other half so they could portray 'smaller government' as a return to Thatcherism. That is not what David was saying." Aides say Mr Cameron will try to square the circle in another speech soon.

It will not be easy to convince his critics. They argue that the economic crisis was not caused by government action but by government inaction in not reining in the free market. And Labour will point out that only large-scale intervention around the world prevented global recession turning into a slump. Even some Tories wonder how a Cameron government would tackle issues like poverty (as he promised to do more effectively than Labour) and climate change without more state intervention. It is hard to see how this happens with less.

The Tory leader faces the classic dilemma of how to address two audiences. Progressive voters will probably welcome his landmark announcement this week that some local Conservative associations will choose their election candidates from all-women shortlists. But yesterday the backlash from the Tory grassroots grew. A survey of 1,900 party members by the ConservativeHome website found that 87 per cent oppose the idea, and only 12 per cent believe the measure is justified. A tiny 0.2 per cent agree that the number of women Tory candidates is an issue for ordinary voters; 97 per cent disagree.

This snapshot shows that the Cameron modernisation project has still not seeped deep into his party. It tolerates him because he is ahead in the opinion polls, but it does not love him. It demands more TLC from him, and warns of storms ahead. Tim Montgomerie, editor of ConservativeHome, said: "Being on top of public opinion isn't the only skill required in a party leader. Managing the Conservative coalition is also a skill. He can treat core supporters in a cavalier way now but he will need them in the lean times that almost certainly lie ahead."

Does it matter? Tony Blair won public support by defining himself against his party's unreconstructed brigade. Perhaps Mr Cameron is trying to emulate him. But there are dangers, notably strong polling evidence that voters like the Tory leader but are still unsure about his party. So he needs to take it with him. "They are not warming to the rest of us," one frontbencher admitted.

On the face of it, Mr Cameron's "small government" pledge widens the divide between the Tories and Labour. Gordon Brown's conference speech a week earlier was more an advert for what government can do than an explanation of what it can't because of the public debt crisis.

And yet, not for the first time, the differences between the two main parties are smaller than they appear. In his BBC interview, Mr Cameron said: "The question is not between a government or no government. It's between what I would argue is a sort of big, bossy, top-down centralised government and what I would like to see, which is smarter, more decentralised, more enabling government."

As it happens, Labour will promise "smarter, not bigger" government too as it tries to repel the Tory attack. It will portray Mr Cameron's language on the size of the state as cover for a crusade to roll it back, completing Lady Thatcher's unfinished business and imposing damaging spending cuts. Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, senses a weakness in Tory defences. "If you start with the ideological assumption that government is the problem, you will inevitably think the issue is big versus small government," he told a conference in Oxford. "And you will inevitably base your prospectus for government on how to cut it, regardless of the consequences."

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: Office Administrator

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - Commercial Vehicles - OTE £40,000

£12000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Leader - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Leader is required to join a lea...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: Most powerful woman in British politics

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
All the major parties are under pressure from sceptical voters to spell out their tax and spending plans  

Yet again, the economy is the battleground on which the election will be fought

Patrick Diamond
Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
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