The first thing that strikes an American about the Conservative party’s annual conference — which opened on Sunday in Birmingham, in Britain’s Midlands — is how small it feels. The convention center will supposedly welcome almost 14,000 attendees, but it looked less crowded — and less engaged — than the meeting in the United States of the Conservative Political Action Conference, which brings together only part of the conservative coalition and annually fills the vast National Harbor complex near Washington, D.C.
A regular complaint of British Conservatives is that the party conference is no longer what it once was. It’s not simply small to American eyes; it’s sadly diminished in British ones. There are now no motions from the floor, no debate, and little sense that the party has much interest in reflecting the views of its most active members. As one MP put it to me, the conference is now for lobbyists, corporate donors, and television. Like American political conventions, it exists to affirm the leadership, not to challenge it. Above all, it must be a success.
In that regard, this year’s conference has been disappointing. The day before the conference, a second Tory MP — Mark Reckless — defected to the U.K. Independence party (UKIP), the populist party Nigel Farage leads that is causing heartache to Tory strategists by peeling away supporters who regard David Cameron as insufficiently conservative. This was immediately followed by the revelation of a sting operation conducted by the Sunday Mirror that forced the resignation of the Conservative minister for civil society, who failed to realize he was sending his dirty pictures to a British hack. This was not the conference launch Ministers wanted.
But the core Tory problem is not Reckless’s recklessness, or the Minister’s dirty-minded incivility. It’s that it’s hard to see a path to victory in next May’s General Election. The arithmetic is brutal: if Labour takes over 35 percent of the vote, a figure it has regularly topped in the polls, it wins. The Conservative vote is being nibbled away by UKIP on the right, and by the natural decay in the floating vote that affects all governments. In a panel on the conference’s Fringe — where ideas and debate have now been exiled — Conservative pollster Lord Ashcroft reported that about a quarter of the Tory vote from 2010 has already departed, while only 9 percent of the public that did not vote Conservative the last time round will consider doing so this time. That’s not enough.
Thanks to the Union’s victory in Scotland’s referendum, Tories will still face a phalanx of tartan socialists in Westminster. The impact of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the Conservative-led coalition, will vary by constituency, but a good bit of their support will flow to Labour. Topping all these problems is the fact that the British electoral system is so biased against the Tories — because Labour constituencies have fewer voters than do Tory constituencies — that they need a lead of about 8 percent over Labour to win an overall majority in Parliament. Just by way of reference, Margaret Thatcher’s margin of victory in her smashing 1983 triumph was 7 percent, a margin that won her a majority of more than 100 seats. It is not likely that Cameron will do what Thatcher failed to achieve, and even if he did, it would barely be enough.
In the face of all of this, the Conservative party has returned to the Cameron script, which is to seek to avoid offending anyone. The friends of this policy call it modernization, but it could easily be mistaken for a lack of backbone and principles. A July reshuffle moved Michael Gove — who had led a revolution in English education policy by promotion the founding of free schools (what we call charter schools) — into the party’s back office as chief whip. Having stood up against the educational establishment (the blob, as Gove once called it) and having been conservative, successful, and outspoken, Gove was a natural target for removal from the public eye.
The ploys continued on Monday, with the first big announcement at the conference: Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s promise to eliminate the 55 percent “tax on death” paid on inherited money by family members when the main earner in the family dies. The intent is to woo back older voters who have disproportionately drifted to UKIP. It would be unkind to call this a bribe, but unkind things are sometimes true. And the Conservatives met in Birmingham — a city distinguished by its fascination both with the ugliest excesses of architectural brutalism and with electing Labour MPs — in order to demonstrate that, as a kinder and gentler party, it really, really cares about places north of London. Birmingham is unlikely to reciprocate.
All this was a marked contrast to the old-style revivalism of the UKIP conference, which culminated with Reckless’s public defection. One media strategist who attended both conferences told me that UKIP’s event reminded him of Tory conferences in the 1980s: UKIP’s attendees showed real enthusiasm for the cause; there was genuine debate within the party, and lobbyist and industry presence were minimal. UKIP would be delighted to elect as many as ten MPs, so enthusiastic amateurism is clearly not enough. But neither is the Tory party’s turgid corporatism, which offers little in the way of excitement and involvement to motivate the faithful. A survey by ConservativeHome, the online leader of British conservatism, found that 85 percent of party members agreed that they “have no real say in the conference.” Nor is there much point in electing brave men such as Gove if their reward is to get the sack.
At this point, the clearest Tory hope is that the Labour alternative to David Cameron will be Ed Miliband, the Labour leader who has the worst poll ratings of any opposition leader in modern British history. This year’s Labour conference was distinguished by Miliband’s inability to remember to mention the deficit in his keynote speech. This was either gutless or revealing, but in either case, it was sensible: Labour heartily dislikes the modest retrenchment in British finances that the coalition government cites as its central achievement. It naturally commands the support of those who want to repeat the Tony Blair–Gordon Brown era experiment with uncontrolled state spending that nearly bankrupted the nation, and that support is just about strong enough to deliver an election win for them. As for the rest of the nation, it is better for Labour to be suspected of financial imbecility than to speak up and remove all doubt. The Conservative strategy, by contrast, is to pound relentlessly on the resulting credibility gap, while doing enough on the budget to show promise but not so much as to alienate voters. That is a more honest, but also more difficult to execute, approach.
Dominating everything at the conference was the issue of Britain’s membership in the EU, as I found in attending the conference to launch a Heritage Foundation paper advocating the creation of a U.S.-U.K. free-trade area outside the EU. The Conservative leadership has promised to hold a referendum on the EU, after an effort to renegotiate the terms of membership, in 2017. Activists who simply want to exit the EU have been sorely tempted to flee to UKIP. The remainder are torn between a desire to elect a Tory government that offers the only realistic chance of exiting, a suspicion that the referendum is a mere gimmick to keep them in the party, and a fear that a Labour victory will deprive them of any chance to turn the gimmick into reality.
Stalwarts of the cause of freedom such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, Business for Britain (an organization of business Euroskeptics), the Taxpayers’ Alliance, and the Freedom Association thus find themselves in the position of trying to drag the Conservative party toward a serious and united effort at renegotiation, and then, most likely, a vote to exit the EU. This should not be hard. It is a position that commands strong majority support within the party, everywhere except where it counts: at the very top. David Cameron has made it clear that his goal in renegotiating is to remain in the EU.
For a party such as the Tories, which used to glory in the claim that it was a party that allowed its local members to select candidates instead of having them dictated by a central machine, this is a depressing state of affairs. But it explains a lot about why the Conservative-party conference is now supposed to do nothing much but shut up and cheer.
— Ted R. Bromund is the senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations in the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.