It wasn’t so much a land grab as a full-scale invasion into the centre ground of British politics. The self-styled heir to Blair delivered a conference speech that the now-reviled former Labour prime minister could himself have delivered in the 1990s. But is Cameron truly a radical centrist, genuinely embracing progressive mantras from a living wage to prison reform? Or is he simply a political opportunist, seeing a chance to colonise vast swathes of the fertile centre ground now so obviously rejected and vacated by the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn, sticking the course with policies that serve to indulge the unreconstructed right of the Tory party: opposition to human rights laws, benefit cuts, crackdowns on immigration and tax cuts?
If the former is true, we see a party leader unashamedly and sincerely selling the political centre to a party still fundamentally and overwhelmingly of the political Right – on Europe, overseas aid and law & order, for example. If the latter is true, conversely, we see a party leader selling the Conservative Party to a centrist electorate: an electorate that desires economic stability, competent government and good public services, but which is chronically allergic to extremism or ideology. Should this ‘mondeo man’ voter be attracted to dependable Dave as he completes the modernisation of the ‘nasty’ party, deemed unelectable not so long ago, or is the one-nation rhetoric unsubstantiated by genuine reform and support for the ‘hardworking people’ Cameron so professes to serve?
There is genuine progressive thinking going on within the Conservative Party
The Tories have been presented with a perhaps undeserved slice of fortune in the election of Corbyn to the Labour leadership. The country needs credible and robust opposition to hold the government to account, and the risk of hubris as a government gets away lightly with policy failure is undesirable for strong democracy in Britain. Nonetheless, the country also needs a party anchored in the centre ground, unwilling to dash to extremes even as others do so. Cameron could legitimately be accused of abandoning his liberal credentials to parry the threat of Ukip during the last Parliament, so many will be pleased to see his ‘hug-a-hoodie’, husky-loving side return.
Moreover, there is genuine progressive thinking going on within the party: David Willetts (former Universities minister) and Boris Johnson urging a rethink on tax credit cuts, Michael Gove planning radical prison reform and George Osborne’s strategy for pioneering economic and political rebalancing and decentralisation within England.
The country needs a party anchored in the centre ground, unwilling to dash to extremes
All this suggests that if the Tories are able to match rhetoric to reality, mitigate the effects of benefit cuts and convince the public that they can be trusted to manage the NHS, there is a real and long term opportunity for the Conservatives.
The Tories traditionally have been trusted on the economy, but seen as out-of-touch and too socially illiberal; Labour the converse. If Cameron is able to dispel the notion of nasty Tories and Osborne to carefully shepherd the economy through challenging global turbulence, then the party may start winning no longer as simply the least worst option.
A warning to Cameron though: just as unpopular governments can still win when trusted economically, unpopular opposition parties can win when the government loses its economic credibility. Add in a Tory civil war over Europe and a change of Labour leadership mid-term, and no one can be certain of where British politics will lead over the next five years. For the time being it remains to be seen whether the new tone of Conservative politics will prove beneficial to the UK.