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Reconstructing Conservatism?

The Conservative Party in Opposition, 1997-2010


Richard Hayton


Manchester: University Press, 2012

Hardback. x+166 p. ISBN 978-0719083167. 60.00


Reviewed by Peter Catterall

University of Westminster



Between 1997 and 2010 the British Conservative Party, which had only a few years earlier been described as the most successful right-wing party in Europe, suffered the longest period of continuous opposition it had ever endured since its emergence in the early nineteenth century (and not, as Hayton states in his opening remarks, since 1922). Only one previous leader, Sir Austen Chamberlain (1921-1922), had failed to attain the premiership: yet from 1997 onwards the party got through four leaders, only the last of which narrowly managed to scale the greasy pole.

This raises questions as to why this apparently well-oiled electoral machine seemingly suddenly seized up, how the Tories sought to re-position themselves in the electoral marketplace, what (if any) rethinking of their ideas and messages took place during the wilderness years and how they eventually re-attained office if not full power in 2010. This short analysis only really addresses the third of these questions, so those seeking discussion of the declining membership and poor direction of diminished resources by the shell-shocked party after the shattering defeat of 1997 will have to turn instead to, amongst others, the work of Justin Fisher. Instead, this book follows in Tim Bale's footsteps in trying to understand how, why and to what extent the Conservatives managed to modernise their image and message during their sojourn in Opposition.

Of course, the two elements of the party machine and the means by which leaders seek to manage their message cannot usefully be separated in this way. Accordingly, the impoverished and demoralised Conservative Central office of 1997 was in no condition to turn around a fractious party looking for some people or principles to blame for its defeat. Nor was it able to respond to the daunting lead the Tories' Labour opponents had opened up during the 1990s in terms of ability to analyse and respond to the expectations and aspirations of the electorate. Such problems were compounded, as Chris Stevens has pointed out, by the collapse of the Tory statecraft which had sustained the Conservatives during their long period in office between 1979 and 1997. Hayton does not show awareness of Jim Bulpitt's very useful concept, instead concentrating on the idea of neo-liberalism as the governing idea of those Conservative governments.

This is problematic in a number of ways. The idea that Margaret Thatcher's governments of 1979-1990 embodied neo-liberalism was indeed sedulously promoted, particularly at the start of her premiership, and Thatcherism has since been frequently and lazily conflated with neo-liberalism. In practice, however, Mrs Thatcher's policies rarely intersected closely with neo-liberal prescriptions. Road pricing, for instance, was definitely beyond the pale because of its likely effects upon Conservative-inclined voters.

Thatcherism was accordingly a piece of Bulpitt's 'Tory Statecraft' in which neo-liberal tools, when they featured, were largely to reassure electors that the Conservatives would bring economic renewal after the dark days of the 1970s seemingly discredited Socialism. In other words, Conservative success after 1979 rested upon a reputation for competent economic management in which neo-liberalism featured more as part of the image, and as an alternative to the failed statism of the recent past, rather than as a central tool. This reputation became vulnerable after the exit from the European exchange rate mechanism in 1992 and perished thereafter under the onslaught of a New Labour version of statecraft which asserted that the fruits of economic growth under the Conservatives had been misapplied and in particular that key institutions such as schools and hospitals had missed out. These institutions were to be the centrepieces of Labour's 2001 re-election strategy, but in 1997 another perceived Tory microeconomic failure proved even more potent. Labour propaganda in 1997 focused strongly on the way in which the Thatcher-supporting aspirational working classes who had bought their own homes in the 1980s had been left with negative equity after 1992. Blair and New Labour thus shifted the debate from the macro-economic high ground on which, as Bulpitt pointed out, Thatcher had won her elections, onto the micro-economic setting on which they would record the successive triumphs of 1997, 2001 and 2005.

Through clever positioning Blair also established a formidable position of Labour strength in areas where the Tories had historically been strong, such as law and order. This left the Conservative leadership, on which Hayton concentrates his discussion, with a major dilemma. In the late 1990s Labour seized a positive lead in the polls on virtually all political issues. At the same time, even after assuming office, Labour took every opportunity if not always accurately to remind the electorate of the supposed Conservative parsimony towards public services and alleged preference for big business, of the homophobic S.28 of the 1988 Local Government Act or of the sleaze and internal divisions which had doomed John Major's 1990-1997 government. Trashing your opponents' political brand is, of course, part of the object of electoral politics. However, the Conservatives struggled to respond, or even to identify their problems, until Theresa May eventually admitted in 2002 that they had allowed themselves to be portrayed as 'the nasty party'. Hayton references this comment several times, but does not link it to the polling evidence after the 2005 election that confirmed the damage the Tory brand had sustained by demonstrating that support for certain policy positions halved when those polled were told that those were the policies of the Conservative party.

Why the Tories were so slow to seek to restore their brand and political narrative is an important issue Hayton seeks to address. He draws attention to the failure of the first Tory leader of this long period of Opposition, William Hague (1997-2001), effectively to address this problem. Hague's Common Sense Revolution re-branding in the late 1990s is shown as only a partial response. One point Hayton overlooks, though it was made at the time by pundits, was that many of Hague's targets were managerial approaches to government that Labour had inherited from the Conservatives. Accordingly, Hague's attacks did not ring true. This might not have mattered in the long run if Hague had stuck to the theme and had the patience to develop a critique of New Labour's political economy. He did not. A large part of the reason why he and his immediate successor, Iain Duncan Smith (2001-2003), did not rests with the other difficulty with the Common Sense Revolution, which was its lack of electoral salience. It did not offer traction in areas on which Labour had seemingly unassailable leads, such as health. Accordingly, much to the satisfaction of the right of the party, there was always a temptation to revert to stressing those policy areas where the Tories seemed better placed to compete with Labour. The trouble was that these were all those issues like immigration and European policy. Emphasising these both pandered to the party's right and played into Blair's ceaseless repetition of the message that the Conservatives were drifting rightwards. The result was to confine even further the party's room for manoeuvre rhetorically, while also providing covering fire for Blair's own shift to the right. In the process the Conservatives were unable to break-out of a core vote strategy, on which they were never likely to win an election.

The way in which the leadership handled these problems exacerbated them. Hayton [107-109] demonstrates how Hague in particular allowed himself to get tied down on policy specifics, rather than developing more marketable themes. Cameron was to adopt a broader strategy after he became leader in 2005. In doing so he was aided by the way in which Labour's own cultivation of moral panic about issues such as anti-social behaviour created a more fertile soil for his 'Broken Britain' rhetoric than had been the case for Hague's Common Sense Revolution a few years earlier.

Cameron was also assisted by the way in which Gordon Brown's reputation as Chancellor of the Exchequer was starting to tarnish, even before the recession hit in 2008. His predecessor and mentor, Michael Howard (2003-2005), had already dubbed Brown the 'Enron Chancellor' in 2003 in a jibe at his various accounting wheezes. An interesting chart [122] shows that at this point the Conservatives began to regain a poll lead on economic competence. Hayton, however, does very little with this because he is more interested in pursuing the idea that there was considerable continuity in Tory economic thinking from the 1980s onwards. His efforts to demonstrate this are not entirely convincing, partly because of a failure to explore the complexities of neo-liberalism and a refusal to accept that it is not coterminous with Thatcherism. They are also stymied by the way in which macro-economic issues are overlooked, such as Howard's warnings about Brown's counter-cyclical spending at the top rather than at the bottom of the cycle. In this Howard seems closer to Keynes than Brown, let alone Friedman or Hayek!

Additionally, Hayton's analysis (which draws heavily on that by Simon Lee) concentrates particularly on monetary and budgetary policy. Tax policy is only mentioned in terms of a (neo-Thatcherite) desire to reduce the tax burden. That there was also a critique of the efficacy of higher taxes, of Brown's fiscal creep whereby more and more people were caught by the top rate of tax, or the increasing complexity Brown was steadily adding to the tax system, goes unremarked. Such critiques might, of course, still have been deemed neo-Thatcherite. The use of such labels, however, will only be of analytical value if they are defined more precisely than is the case in this work.

Hayton's reductive focus upon a continuity from Thatcherism leads him to the not exactly novel conclusion that Cameron merely made-over rather than changed his party. If true, the obvious lesson to draw from this, though one Hayton avoids, is that if the Conservatives had been better at rebranding they might have won back sooner. After all, Hayton sees New Labour similarly as neo-Thatcherite. Insofar as they paid lip service to the market, by which they seem to have merely meant vaguely pro-business policies, there is some truth in this. This implies that there was in fact broad electoral support for neo-Thatcherite policies, but that the Tories were not the beneficiaries. However, much of this was more rhetoric than reality. New Labour's enthusiasm for the Private Finance Initiative, for instance, was more because it could deliver them lots of shiny new capital projects quickly and off-balance sheet than because of an ideological commitment to a superficially neo-liberal idea. Delivery mattered more than ideas.

Hayton's over-concentration on neo-liberalism is thus problematic. It leads to overlooking of major problems for the Conservatives, such as the failure to recover in urban Northern English constituencies or its weak support among young and ethnic minority voters. It also involves overlooking the obvious point that the anxieties about immigration raised by Howard and increasingly rampant on the Tory right and beyond subsequently have little to do with a deeply cosmopolitan ideology like neo-liberalism.

Because these go unmentioned it is unclear as to whether Hayton's prescription is a more radical modernisation of Conservative political economy than has happened hitherto and, if so, what he thinks that modernisation should consist of. The only hint he offers is a reference to the turmoil in the global economy after 2008 in his final sentence. This seems to point towards Cameron's adoption of the language of the 'global race' in 2013. This slogan is a piece of political positioning which attempts rhetorically to open up clear blue water between him and Labour, while providing a rallying cry that does not open up the wound of Europe within his own party and supporters. It also reflects awareness that the international outlook is less benign than it was in the late 1990s. Indeed, domestic consequences  such as concerns about immigration, extremism, energy security or economic re-balancing all suggest that this international environment will play its part in the issues of most salience to voters in the coming 2015 election.

If it is the Conservatives who win that election their challenge will be to recast their policies and message to meet such concerns, not least among core supporters attracted by the oppositional politics of UKIP. This could involve neo-liberalism which after all is about trying to make markets as efficient and resistant to capture as possible rather than the skewed rewards which have resulted from ill-considered market interventions such as excessive cheap money or over-blown quantitative easing. However, if they get it wrong, as they did after 1992, then they will find in this book little guidance on how to recover next time around.


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