Nine years ago today, Michael Howard, who had then been leader of the Conservative Party for about two months, published in the Times a statement of beliefs, called ‘I Believe’. There are a number of areas missing from this statement (not least what is our place in the world when we’re not fighting), but it is pretty much why I joined the Conservative Party in January 2004.
Yet by 2005, we were fighting a campaign that, for all its efficacy and all its camaraderie internally, and – importantly – for all its necessity in light of the recent history of the Conservative party, was not rooted in the sentiments outlined in I Believe. The same thing had happend under William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. Looking back, perhaps the time wasn’t yet right for any of those three leaders, but it is unarguable that if they had been able to make more progress, David Cameron would have had an easier time of it.
As I have argued before, the party stopped modernising with the financial crash; modernising is not a discrete process; and modernising is not just about the social stuff but about the way that Conservatism lives in the real world. Bright Blue’s new book, with excerpts of the contributions from Francis Maude and Matthew d’Ancona published over the weekend, and which is published later this month, will be essential reading on this.
As I have also written before, I remain concerned that the people I speak to in the government are too complacent that things will come good by 2015, and that anything they say about the progress being made is heard. The only things that people seem to be hearing chime with the preconceptions and prejudices that the modernisation process was supposed to deal with – and yet much of what I hear from the Tories at the moment makes them sound like they have remembered nothing.
For example, talking about “scoungers” and “shirkers” when discussing welfare reform is wrong. It’s wrong because most people on benefits DO try, and it’s wrong because it makes people mistrust Conservatives’ motives. There is of course absolutely no problem with being demanding of people in return for the shared benefit of our welfare system – but we must not slip back into being seen as only interested in Mitt Romney’s 53 per cent.
This is the moment of maximum danger for David Cameron. Various groups are pushing him hard on various issues – but those issues are mostly shorthand for general discontent. We are halfway through the Parliament. The fun of 2012 is over, we’re still having a tough time economically, nothing seems to be changing, and it’s still raining. Yes, it IS hard work governing, making changes, showing people the difference, and ensuring that they understand the reality not the Opposition’s spin. That, however, is what David Cameron needs to do.
If things go on in the un-gripped, incoherent and mystifying way that they did for part of 2012, Paul Goodman’s prediction that the Conservatives will lose in 2015 is almost certain to come true. If however, they get a grip, explain the many good and sensible reforms they are making, tell a story about what 2015 and beyond will look like, and stop messing people about by confusing the message and failing to think about what their actions say, then it is entirely possible that they could win in 2015. But they have to want to – and then put the work in now to make it happen.