In the speech that secured his Tory leadership in 2005, David Cameron told the party faithful that they must “change to win”. For five years, amid considerable lip-biting, a degree of hand-gnawing and no small amount of toe-curling, the party went through this “change” process. It was a self-imposed regime of “detoxification”. Other conservatives, including US Republicans, were advised to learn from this experiment. So the politics of “aroma” began.
Out went the scent of tweed and pin-stripes, one-nation Toryism and small-state solutions. In came the waft of “New Labour lite”. Cameron’s first act as party leader was to go to a glacier in Norway, meet huskies and learn about global warming. It was meant to show that the Tories were down with the whole environment business. The party’s logo changed from a torch to a tree. And it was downhill from there.
When the election came along, the party that had chosen to hide its principles found that when it needed them, it was hard to remember where it had placed them. Or what they looked like. Late in the election campaign, Cameron started talking about the “Big Society”. It sounded as though it might be the flip side of the small state. But it was all such a long time ago nobody could remember what that had looked like either.
From the point at which the economic tide roared out, the Conservative Party was left shivering on the beach, looking naked. All the aroma in the world couldn’t save it from the ensuing hurricane. So despite facing a Labour Party that had been in power for 13 years and taken the country into economic terrain nearest to Greece, the Tories only narrowly increased their share of the vote, failed to secure enough seats to gain a majority and now sit in humiliating coalition with the third-party Liberal Democrats. The Tory party changed, but it did not win.
This lesson should be considered very carefully by those conservatives in the US and elsewhere who have looked to Cameron as a model to follow. It is certainly an understandable temptation. When your opinions seem unpopular, it is always a temptation to swap them for a new set. “These are our principles, and if you don’t like them we’ve got others.”
Though unsettling, it should have occurred to Britain’s Conservatives that it might in fact have been them, and not their ideas, that were unappealing. At least compared with the opposition. In 1997, the Tories faced an electoral superstar in Tony Blair. They lost to him in 2001 and 2005 for a huge number of reasons, but not least among them was the fact that their clothes had been stolen by a man who wore them better than they did. They should have recognized imitation as the sincerest form of flattery. Instead, the Conservatives saw it as evidence that a new wardrobe was in order.
Certainly there were things the Tory party needed to do to make itself more appealing. But none of these should have been at the expense of its policies or principles. Without its principles, the party still retained the hatred of its age-old enemies. But it failed to argue its case to potential new friends at a time when such people would have been uniquely receptive to them.
The political situation of US Republicans since 2008 is not dissimilar to that of the Tories from 1997: out of power, out of energy, and out of sources of leadership. Perhaps those Republicans who fell for the Cameron line did so because they admired the initial poll-bounce that he brought with him. But that bounce never went high enough to get through any winning net.
It is hard to find a US comparison with the ignominious failure of the Cameron project to win a clear majority. But the closest analogy would be if the Republican Party had been forced to form a coalition with Ralph Nader for George W. Bush to become president in 2001.
Until this week, whenever Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg got up to speak in the House of Commons, the Conservatives heckled, jeered and bullied him gleefully as the third-party wannabe. Two years ago, when asked what his favourite joke was, Cameron replied: “Nick Clegg”. The disdain was not one-way.
Last year at his party conference, Clegg said that “the choice before people is the choice between fake, phoney change from David Cameron’s Conservatives, and real change the Liberal Democrats offer”. Throughout the election campaign, the Liberal leader portrayed the Conservatives as the “old party”, as though the 100-year period during which the Liberals had been out of office was a rejuvenating spa-break they’d been planning all along.
Nevertheless, on Wednesday morning, David Cameron and Nick Clegg were standing together on the steps of 10 Downing Street. Watching the two of them now is like watching a couple who hate each other, but marry because they have to, for the most base financial or social reasons. The UK doesn’t deserve this. But these two party leaders most certainly do. The shot of them together, grins fixed for the cameras, should be preserved in aspic. A constant reminder to people of all political persuasions that those who choose power over principles are in the end condemned to truly hold neither.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Edited excerpts. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Douglas Murray is director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, UK