With negotiations between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats taking place as I write, it’s worth considering why the Tories are in this invidious position.
A few months ago, David Cameron and his coterie were riding high in the polls, with expectations high that Labour would be smashed at the ballot box. The rout never eventuated, and although the Tories picked up around 97 new seats, they did not end up with the thumping majority they wanted. Despite the apathy towards Labour and the hype around Clegg, it turns out Britons could just not force themselves to vote Tory.
Recriminations are now starting, with anger toward David Cameron and his inner circle bubbling to the surface:
Angry Conservatives are telling the party’s leadership that David Cameron must break up his “chums circle” running the party and bring on board veterans who were largely excluded from the election campaign.
Amid mounting recriminations over Cameron’s failure to secure an overall parliamentary majority, Tory anger is focused on the tight circle that ran the campaign and the relatively inexperienced shadow ministers who sold the Tory message on television.
Conservative officials, who will start to be laid off tomorrow, turned on the party’s director of strategy, Steve Hilton, in a series of tense encounters on Friday. Hilton is blamed for the big society, the party’s central campaign message about embarking on the biggest devolution of power in a generation, that crashed on the doorstep and is being dubbed by senior party figures as “gimmicky nonsense”.
There is also anger that David Cameron so readily agreed to the now famous television debates. While the Tories (and certainly David Cameron) believed that the debates would contrast Brown and Cameron quite starkly, they didn’t take into account the Clegg-factor, who undermined Cameron’s message of change. The Tories’ “change” message (apart from being the most vacuous political slogan of all) was also a crowded space, with the Greens Party and Liberal Democrats also calling for change.
Ultimately however, I think it comes down to the fact that David Cameron and the Tories just didn’t convince the majority of voters that they were no longer the party of Thatcher. During the campaign, the message of “Big Society” didn’t wash – and it seemed too much like code for cuts to public services.
Although people were sick of Labour, not enough people wanted to go back down the road to the 80s. Cameron’s continual “trashing” of the Conservative brand probably reinforced this notion – with his declarations that the Tories were no longer the “nasty party” simply reminding voters that they hated the Tories under Thatcher.
The Tories may end up forming government – confirming that the Liberal Democrats are no progressive party in the process – but they certainly did not win the election campaign.
One senior Tory said: “If we had not had the television debates we would now be in government with an overall majority. Debates, plus big society and gimmicky nonsense equals a hung parliament. No debates, plus core message and proper politics would have equalled victory.”