John Harris

Journalist & Author

Local elections 2012: Thatcherism with a posh accent is a toxic proposition | John Harris

The Tories aren’t in existential crisis, but discontent among voters is focused on the leadership cabal and the issue of class

Cast your eyes over these results, and feel the Tory pain. Harlow, Great Yarmouth, Reading, Plymouth, Thurrock – all southern bywords for the kind of places that decide British elections, and all lost to Labour. Ukip polling an average of 13% wherever it stood. Those half-baked plans for directly elected mayors met with a mixture of hostility and complete indifference.

The low chatter of Conservative angst that has been simmering since the budget has now suddenly risen in volume and urgency. So far, listening to such voices rather suggests that the critique of the Tories’ woes needs a bit more work, but one thing is beyond doubt: almighty rows have broken out within the Conservative family.

There may be something in the idea being put about by those on the right of the party that Tory loyalists have been dismayed by the leadership’s embrace of bits of metropolitan liberalism, but there again, do more hard-bitten Conservatives really have that much to complain about?

The idea of any leftward pull from the Lib Dems usually turns out to be a canard. The cuts highlight the fact that Thatcherism is in rude health. The welfare state is under assault. The NHS is being subjected to the outsourcing and fragmentation of Tory dreams, and our schools are falling victim to much the same, with the added bonus of a supposed return to old-fashioned discipline and academic rigour. Moreover, large swaths of the public remain in full accord with the supposed need for crushing austerity, are happy to watch benefit claimants being thrown the wolves, and are hardly sold on the idea of Labour coming back to power – with or without Ed Miliband’s still cloudy vision of “responsible capitalism”. So what is going on?

Three factors speak for themselves: the dreadful state of the economy, the rising cost of living, and the widespread impression of simple incompetence. But that third explanation blurs over into something even more troubling to the Tory soul: the shortcomings of the coterie who currently lead the party, and the torturous issue of class.

Could it be that if the Tories are going to stick to the ideology they pursued in the 1980s, their party is best fronted by the kind of people on whom it depends for votes, rather than those who give the party money?

Thirty years ago, when its project was piloted by politicians who had a keen sense of how millions of Britons thought and lived, the party was on to a inspired kind of politics that won it four elections. But Thatcherism with a posh accent is a potentially toxic proposition, revealing Conservatism not as the empowering, aspirational force that once seized so many imaginations but a tangle of cynical ideas that shores up the same old elites.

In London, Boris Johnson has smoothed over the issue of his background thanks to three things: his veneer of nonconformity, his shape-shifting politics, and his distance from the Osborne-Cameron cabal.

But since the budget, and the stupid decision to cut the 50p rate of tax, class-based Tory anxiety has defined plenty of the noise emanating from Conservatives. Nadine Dorries is easily dismissed as an irrelevant troublemaker, but her two attacks on the party’s “posh boys” have palpably jangled nerves.

Rachel Sylvester, a dependably insightful Times columnist, recently wrote of the inner circle’s “toe-curlingly patronising” attitude to such ministers as Eric Pickles and Sayeeda Warsi, both of whom embody a Conservatism reflective of working-class aspiration, rather than the expectation of power and privilege being handed from one moneyed generation to the next.

Tim Mongomerie, whose critique of where his party is going wrong grows more compelling by the week, expresses deep concern that the party leadership is in danger of neglecting the aspirational “grafters” whose votes are essential to any Tory victory in three years’ time. Meanwhile, when Labour mocks the frontbench’s backgrounds, the voices that would once accused them of stone-age class warfare are conspicuously silent. Class, after all, is back, and it was the Tories who put it there. Which self-respecting opposition wouldn’t hammer it?

What should really exercise Tory minds is that whatever their problems, they do not add up to any kind of existential crisis. Conservatism – or, at least, support for it – remains something deeply rooted in the fabric of English life. It expresses a huge dislike of organised labour, a belief in private property as the foundation of civilisation, and a defining suspicion of the state. For the most part it is hostile to change – but at least once, it has risen to a moment that demanded it.

It will never go away – but as Conservatives endlessly concluded between the mid-1960s and the early 21st century, its best public faces are people with an instinctive understanding of ordinary lives, and the openings within them for Conservative ideas.

Hand the party to bluebloods rather than battlers, and the same basic plotline may well play out again and again – something manifested not just in this current turbulence, but their howling failure to win the last general election, and the fact that David Cameron and George Osborne have yet to communicate any sense of their vision for the country.

In its absence, the prime minister is reduced to either hammily claiming that he understands the nitty-gritty of ordinary lives or getting very angry, as if his troubles are an offence to the natural order of things. Was Norman Tebbit like that? More to the point, was Margaret Thatcher?

Five decades ago, grouse-moors Conservatism seemed to breathe its last with the doomed Alec Douglas-Home, chosen for the leadership via the old method whereby a charmed circle would disappear into a country house, and then pick its man. “We can’t go wrong with a shooting gent,” one of them said.

But they did, and at this rate, they will again.

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