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On yer bike: Modernisers like Steve Hilton have long since fled No 10

The Conservative Party has generally avoided becoming hung up on bad ideas, either about itself or the country. There have, though, been exceptions. Imperial preference, in the 1920s and '30s, and European integration, in the 1960s and '70s, are examples of bad ideas that were highly influential. The first is entirely forgotten. As for the second, a few Europhile voices can still be heard in the upper, older reaches of the Conservative Party, but the European idea today looks not just stale, but absurd.

It is now possible to pronounce the last rites over a further, still more recent, bad idea. For Tory modernisation, too, is definitively dead. It is no longer a project: it is a curiosity. One of the initiators, Matthew d'Ancona, former editor of the Spectator, has written that "the shelving of the modernisation campaign was the Tories' worst strategic error since the poll tax". Few in Conservative circles would agree with that judgment; but Mr d'Ancona is right that modernisation has been well and truly "shelved".

The reason is simple. The Conservative Party is in one of its panics, and no one quite does panic like the Tories. The party leadership fears losing office and the MPs fear losing their seats. In such conditions, they throw out anything that weighs them down. The gunwales are already low in the water, and modernisation has been pumped out of the bilges.

Unfortunately, parties cannot be so easily shot of their egregious mistakes. Simply doing the precise opposite of what the leadership has been urging for as long as people can remember looks ridiculous, and the Conservatives look ridiculous now. The obvious instance is Europe. It was a central part of the Tory modernisers' thesis that Conservatives had become obsessed with Europe — continually "banging on" about it, as David Cameron complained in his first conference speech as leader. "Banging on" hardly now begins to describe the belligerent drumbeats pulsing from Conservative headquarters. Not a day goes by without Mr Cameron striving to appease Eurosceptic opinion in his party with some half-baked, improbable, transparently tactical initiative. Similarly, immigration was another of those vulgar topics that the modernisers were determined to downplay. Negative attitudes were, they claimed, at the root of the Conservative Party's "toxic" image which made it unelectable. The latest Queen's Speech is, of course, all about immigration control. The modernisers also said that Tories should speak about the poor, not seem to pander to the rich. Nowadays, curbing abuse of benefits is central to the government's political strategy. That once-fastidious moderniser, George Osborne, has even linked welfare to the crimes of a convicted child killer. But the most unlikely transformation is of Theresa May, who has changed from sea-green moderniser to eye-popping populist. Mrs May, it will be recalled, delivered the most damaging speech ever made by a Tory party chairman when in 2002 she described Conservatives as "unchanged, unrepentant, just plain unattractive" and christened her audience "the nasty party". The reinvented May is now threatening to abandon the European Convention on Human Rights, berating pussy-footing officials and chastising the judiciary in a rhetorical war with illegals, terrorists and assorted softies.

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Peter, cornwall.
June 8th, 2013
1:06 PM
Brilliant article, diagnosis spot on though cure I'm not so sure off. Cameron's legacy will not be "gay marriage" but the destruction of the Conservative party which I have up until the local elections voted for all my life."Gay marriage" has highlighted a problem I had not previously realised in British politics. The Godless right are as much to be feared as the Godless left. The "cancer" in the Conservative party is clearly too widespread and therefor inoperable. But who's fault is that? Is it not merely reflecting the collapse in Christian values and morality in the wider society?

Anonymous
June 7th, 2013
11:06 AM
"Politics is a brutal game. But for sustained personal unpleasantness, the Conservative modernisers deserve some kind of award." How very very true. I remember attending a Westminster meeting over ten years ago when the modernising movement was getting going. The bile, malice and sheer vituperation directed at anyone with remotely centre-right leanings (especially if they were old or middle-aged and white) was a wonder to behold, with at least three current ministers fully involved. What's more, they haven't changed.

Anonymous
June 2nd, 2013
1:06 PM
"A political party cannot charge down its eccentrically chosen route, trampling opposition, belittling critics, insulting supporters, only to find itself in a cul-de-sac, and not expect to be bruised by them when it finally doubles back." Indeed. And the first and most important part of Tory 'reckoning' surely must be to liberate the party from the modernisation project's two most disastrous architects: Cameron and Osborne.

Chrysostom
June 2nd, 2013
7:06 AM
A percipient and well-argued article. Cameron must go if the Tories are to have any chance. And they must drop the attack on marriage, the biggest vote-loser of all time. Were they to do so, then individual MPs would gain enormously if they voted against the attack on marriage. Almost all Labour MPs voted to wreck marriage: and so at the next election, the Tories must ensure that their constituents know all about this. Labour will try to wriggle out but dishonesty should be exposed. Thus, this vote-losing subject could actually become a vote winner for the Tories but they must drop the measure - and Cameron - NOW.

Peter63
June 1st, 2013
6:06 AM
The shape of things to come, politically speaking, was exhibited by the Eastleigh by-election. There the LibDems were superbly organised and garrisoned, no effort was left unmade or less than brilliantly targeted by them, and they got 32.06% of the votes cast. UKIP and the Tories' votes combined came to 53.17% of the votes cast. The Tories found out that David Cameron/George Osborne's brilliant strategy of getting rid of ordinary members on the ground throughout the country; and running elections entirely in the interest of a Parliamentary Party which is more and more required to be a team exclusively working for them; and doing it all by gaining big-cheque bribes from big business and therewith national publicity and mail-shots, not old-fashioned presences and canvassing; obtained for them third place in a two-horse race. Cameron, Theresa May and Co have done for the Conservatives what Gerald Ratner did for his inherited family firm. Once the Tory Party dies out completely - this year, next at latest? - the anti-'liberal' consensus vote everywhere will be enormous.

MartinW
May 29th, 2013
8:05 PM
A devastating critique, and correct in every particular.

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