‘The Conservatives: what happened and what next?’, QMUL Post-election Breakfast Briefing, Westminster, 11 May 2015

David Cameron is the first PM since Margaret Thatcher in 1983 to increase the number of Tory MPs in parliament from one election to the next, and the first Tory PM since Anthony Eden in 1955 to increase the party’s share of the vote.  The Tories won 330 seats (51% of the total) on a vote-share of 37% (just under one percentage point up from 2010).  Their performance in Scotland, at 15% was their worst ever, although they still held onto one seat.  They got 27% of the vote in Wales, garnering 11 seats, up three from 2010. Just as encouragingly, albeit under the radar, the Tories picked up around 500 additional local councillors and assumed control of 30 more councils: this may help revive their party at local level. They will also be advantaged by boundary reform, although this will not now be accompanied by a reduction of the number of seats in parliament, demand for which has (unsurprisingly perhaps) died. For portraits of the new intake see here.

The Conservatives’ improved performance was down in no small measure to what I call ‘the black widow effect’: after mating with their Lib Dem coalition partners, they killed and then ate them, taking 26 of their seats. They lost only 2 seats net to Labour.  They were helped in this by an incumbency effect favouring MPs who won their seats in 2010, and by being well ahead of Labour when it came to economic competence and leadership.  Much like the Better Together campaign in Scotland, it wasn’t pretty but it was effective, and its growing emphasis on the ‘chaos’ inherent in some sort of Labour-SNP ‘deal’ may well have persuaded some waverers (back) into the Tory camp.  Possibly (although only partially) as a result, UKIP did as much if not more damage to Labour in the marginals than it did to the Conservatives.

The Conservative benches in the Commons now contain the party’s highest ever proportion of women, the 68 female MPs who will sit there making up 21% of the Tory total.  Some 48% of Tory MPs went to independent schools (with 34% having been to comprehensives and 18% to grammars): this is a drop from 54% in 2010 and continues a long-term trend toward there being more state-educated Tory MPs.  34% of Conservatives in the Commons were educated at Oxford or Cambridge.

Cameron’s 12-seat overall majority may represent his ‘sweetest victory’ but it is nonetheless slim – less than the 21 seat majority won by John Major (on 42% of the vote) back in 1992.  Anyone old enough to remember will recall that that victory soon turned to custard.  And while it is difficult to foresee anything on the horizon that could do as much swift or fatal damage to the Tories’ reputation for economic competence, there is one obvious parallel with the early 1990s: Europe. The number of Conservative MPs who will actively work for, or at the very least lean towards, Brexit runs to around a third of the parliamentary party. The problem for Cameron is that there may a big difference between what his backbenchers (and, indeed, some of his front-bench colleagues) want and what his EU partners are prepared to give him by way of a deal that he can present as reason to stay in the union: Eurosceptic demands, for instance, for an opt-out from the free movement principle and/or the right to veto any unsatisfactory law made in Brussels cannot be met. As long, however, as Cameron does not allow himself to be forced into making such demands from other member states (which would be refused and thereby reduce him to recommending the UK leave the EU) he should be OK. The package he renegotiates may not satisfy many in his own party, but it will probably persuade the public to support a cross-party recommendation to stay in.

Cameron can then depart the scene, triggering a leadership contest which, in sometimes barely-supressed form, will already have been going on for 2 years. By then Boris may have made a hash of things and others may have moved into the frame.

The parliamentary party may be easier to manage because jobs can be given to Tories rather than Lib Dems.  Also, the narrowness of the majority may (on balance) improve discipline, especially if combined with a more inclusive approach by a PM enjoying a degree of goodwill after winning, and sensible management from Chris Grayling – a Leader of the House who will be trusted by the right – and Chief Whip, Mark Harper, who surely cannot make as many mistakes in that job as Michael Gove. That said, many right wingers and free-market ultras will now discover that the reason they can’t get what they want (for example, on climate change and energy policy, welfare cuts, immigration, surveillance, human rights, planning restrictions, grammar schools, trade union reforms, and EVEL/Scotland) has less to do with those pesky Lib Dems and more to do with even more pesky parliamentary, legal, international, and electoral realities.

Just as problematic for Cameron will be the campaign promises he made, in an era where both the birth rate and the elderly population is rising, to protect health and, to a lesser extent, education spending. Unless he and George Osborne really have discovered a magic money tree in the Downing Street back garden, then, given their promise not to raise a number of key taxes, resources will either have to be diverted from other budgets – including welfare, science, research and public-sector payrolls – or conjured up by generating additional revenues, such as higher university tuition fees, non-dom taxes, or higher property taxes. The Tories also have to fund higher rail subsidies and measures to boost childcare and home ownership. The obvious solution, as it was from 2012 onwards, is to slow the pace of deficit reduction.

This, plus, the party will hope, a fairly smooth leadership transition, may well help it to a third victory in 2020.  But long term problems remain, not least the party’s difficulty in appealing to younger, better-educated and ethnic minority voters – all growing proportions of the electorate (although not necessarily the electorate who actually turn out and vote).


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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