Today’s Eastleigh by election could be the beginning of the end for David Cameron. Even if he manages to scrape a win, his feral backbenchers – to whom Maria Hutchings would be a natural addition – will not be quieted. Nothing less than an extremely unexpected rout of all comers will give the Tories the renewed boost of confidence Cameron’s Party seem to need from him in more regular doses than ever.
That’s not to say he’ll be gone by the next election if the Tories lose in Eastleigh. The lack of a realistic alternative (or at least one who is actually in Parliament) has led to a situation where any old numpty who can get a couple of mates to write a letter talked up as a challenger. But in reality, there aren’t many who could do better than Cameron, however poorly he is doing.
Cameron doesn’t seem to believe in much besides his own right to rule. But the one thing he did seem to believe in was the need for the Tory Party to change; to stop being the “nasty party”. He’s struggled to retain that sense as he has allowed those with a stronger ideological bent than him – not least George Osborne, Andrew Lansley and Iain Duncan Smith – to use the financial crisis to implement a readjustment away from the state and away from the support by that state of the most vulnerable. Issues like the appalling Bedroom Tax have ensured the Tories retain their nasty tag.
But many in Cameron’s Party don’t see it that way. They focus on issues like equal marriage and the occasional bone thrown to otherwise starving Lib Dems and feel nothing but resentment. This wasn’t what they suffered through 13 years of Labour rule for. They want Cameron to let Tories be Tories – by which they mean bastards. And if Cameron won’t, they’ll find themselves someone who will.
Cameron promised to change his Party, but he never properly challenged them. And while his modernisation programme has a few true believers but having failed to seal the deal with the electorate, few Tory members trust him or it.
I don’t believe Cameron has changed his Party enough. I think we’ll find when the time comes – be it now, 2015 or 2020 – for the Tories to seek Cameron’s replacement, they will not go for another so-called moderniser. They will choose one of them – one less at home in Notting Hill and more at home in Hampshire. And having failed to properly lay the ground work for real change or to prove the effectiveness of the changes they have wrought, Cameronites will be powerless to stop them.
David Cameron had a remarkably long run of positive and soft-scrutiny press. As a press who had fallen decisively out of love with Labour were loudly convincing themselves that the New Compassionate Conservatives were real, It allowed Cameron and his supporters to convince themselves they were doing the heavy lifting without actually making the kind of top to bottom change to the organisation that was needed to truly develop.
His failure to do so could have catastrophic consequences for the Tories for some time to come (excuse me as I dig out my world’s smallest violin). Modernisation was the right path to electoral success for the Tories, but a botched modernisation is possibly the worst possible outcome for them. They have failed to convince the electorate they have changed and failed to convince the party that change is essential. It is extremely likely that whoever comes after Cameron will define themselves against the modernisation era. Some will be and will remain convinced that this is the only thing that will bring electoral success – that one more heave of the low tax, small state, strivers and skivers, hang-em and flog ‘em brigade is what it will take to win the day.
I hope so. I hope it takes the Tory Party a really long time to work out that what is going wrong for them is not too much modernisation, but too little – too brittle a façade of modernisation that failed to hide the dark heart of the Tory party. I want Labour to win the next election, and the one after that (and the one after that – ad infintum). The last thing I want is the Tories getting a clue. Luckily they are showing few signs of doing so.
When the dust settles and we can look back on Cameron’s impact on the Tory Party it will not be simply his own time as leader by which we will judge him. The proof that Cameron is anything more than an aberration born of electoral desperation will be in who the Tories choose as his successor. As it stands, Cameron’s legacy looks as ephemeral as the Big Society.