The Conservative party has largely recovered from the travails of the late ’80s and 1990s, says Kate Dommett, but David Cameron’s modernisation agenda has been worn away as his party has gained power. With a leadership contest on the far horizon, what is the shape and substance of the modern Tory ideology?

To win the leadership of the Conservative party, whenever that position should become available, the successful candidate will have to navigate some treacherous ideological terrain. In particular, they will have to address whether, and how, the Conservative modernisation project should be renewed for a new era, at the same time as longstanding Tory dilemmas are likely to be reasserting themselves: Britain’s place in Europe, questions of national identity and the future shape of the union, the tension between social liberalism and traditionalism, and the pressures and contradictions of a neoliberal political economy.[1]

Will the leadership candidates cleave to a drily Thatcherite economic vision, for example, or will the underlying weaknesses of the British economy force a reshaping of their approach to political economy, as hinted at, rhetorically at least, in the more interventionist, Heseltinian approach to the ‘northern powerhouse’? Will the Conservative party continue to strengthen its English political identity, at the expense of its historic unionism, or the cosmopolitanism implicit in its organisational modernisation? Will the social liberalism of Cameron’s leadership be accepted, or will a standard-bearer emerge to argue that modernisation has gone too far and ought to be rolled back? And, most important of all, how will leading candidates align themselves in the forthcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, and what will the aftermath of that referendum bring?

Common sense or ideology: what lies beneath?

Central to answering these questions is a better understanding of the ideological currents flowing through the contemporary Conservative party. Its relationship with ideology is and always has been complex. The party has long defined its identity in relation to a ‘common sense’ approach to politics, but underneath the rhetoric of pragmatism and the national interest, very different ideological traditions can be found. Neoliberals and neoconservatives, wets and dries, Eurosceptics and those less sceptical (if not overtly Europhile) – all are evident, and each has achieved prominence to differing degrees at different moments in time. This approach means it is often difficult to instantly discern what the Conservatives stand for, as they tend not to overtly embrace ideology – indeed, they often actively condemn ideological thinking.

In this way, Winston Churchill dismissed ‘Socialist Ministers … so much wrapped up in their Party doctrines that they cannot give a fair chance to our national interests and prosperity’ and argued that ‘we Conservatives do not believe there is a quack cure-all for the trouble and tribulations of human life’.[2] More recently, David Cameron proclaimed that his Conservative party would govern in accordance ‘with a practical desire to sort out this country’s problems, not by ideology’.[3] This approach does not mean that ideology is entirely absent, but it does make it more difficult to recognise the debate around the desirability of Conservative commitments, for example, to a small state, minimal regulation, individual freedom and responsibility, patriotism and strong law and order, because these are presented first and foremost as common sense.

This strategy poses challenges for those interested in studying ideology for its own sake, but as a political approach it can prove exceedingly persuasive – indeed, it helped to deliver electoral success throughout the 1980s, even as the party embarked on its most radical ideological project in decades. After its defeat in 1997, however, the Conservative party found it very difficult to align its message to the public’s aspirations and ideals, and to adjust to New Labour’s political supremacy. In 2005, pollster Lord Ashcroft found the party to be ‘thought less likely than their opponents to care about ordinary people’s problems, share the values of voters or deliver what they promised’.[4] In the public mind, the party was connected with the interests of an elite and with socially conservative attitudes that were out of kilter with modern ideas, of the kind symbolised by Blair’s restless social reformism. In essence, the Conservative’s identity and agenda came to be viewed as far removed from common sense, which limited the party’s appeal and undermined their electoral prospects.

Fast forward to 2015 and the Conservatives can, in many ways, be adjudged to have overcome the travails of the past. The party has returned to political office, gaining power first in coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, and then alone in 2015. Poll ratings consistently place the Conservatives ahead of their main electoral opposition, and their policy agenda has received considerable support.

Nonetheless, the party’s success has not been resounding by any means. At the 2015 general election, the Conservatives obtained 36.9 per cent of the vote, securing a majority of just 12 MPs. There are no immediate signs that the party has fully addressed the allegations against it, and thus cast aside its reputation as the ‘nasty party’ or become more attuned to mainstream public opinion. Indeed, in terms of the ideological spectrum, it appears that the Conservatives continue to lie markedly to the right of the average voter, raising questions about the party’s ability to reconcile its agenda with public attitudes and ideals.[5]

Modernist or traditionalist: the shape of the debates to come

Yet with Cameron’s retirement from the party leadership scheduled before 2020, a window of opportunity has opened up in which the party’s message might be redefined. As the succession battle commences, the party will turn its attention to an internal debate about the ideological priorities that should be pursued, the message that should be given to the public, and the strategy that is most likely to deliver electoral success in the future. While the candidates’ precise visions are not yet clear, what can be presumed from recent interventions is that much of the debate will be played out between modernising and traditionalist perspectives.

Within the Conservative party these two positions have long been in evidence, and they capture different stances on moral and social issues. To offer a simplified illustration of the difference: on one side stand traditional conservatives who uphold long-held conceptions of institutions, such as marriage and the family, and who argue that the party should promote and protect these ideas; on the other side stand the modernisers, who tend to hold more liberal social positions, and who argue that the party needs to adapt to reflect modern conditions and as such should be tolerant of, for instance, gay marriage and new conceptions of what it means to be a family. These two positions offer alternative visions of the party’s identity and mission that have become linked to questions of electoral strategy.

Prevailing electoral logic dictates that a party seeking electoral victory in a traditionally two-party system such as the UK’s should occupy the centre ground, aligning their party’s identity with the attitudes and ideas of the so-called ‘median voter’. The views of these voters come to be seen as ‘common sense’ because they are perspectives that are able to appeal to both sides of the political spectrum, rendering them electorally profitable. This has led parties to compete over the centre ground: Tony Blair put forward a ‘third way’ in his attempts to expand support for the Labour party, and Cameron positioned himself as the heir to Blair with a ‘compassionate conservative’ message.

This electoral logic is significant because it has been used by modernisers within the Conservative party to argue that achieving power is dependent on tracking towards the centre. By this argument, conservatism is really all about ‘evolving and responding to the spirit and issues of the age, ever changing, through practical problem solving rather than dogmatism’, not preserving traditional positions that are out of touch and hinder electoral support.[6]

Unsurprisingly, this perspective is not uniformly accepted. Traditionalists continue to espouse the electoral viability of their ideas, with members of the 1922 committee, for example, stressing the need for a stronger message on immigration and Europe.[7] Such interventions emphasise the need for the Conservative party to lead political debate and to question whether what the public say they want in polling is the same as what they really want – and vote for – in private.

Cameron the Moderniser

These debates between modernisers and traditionalists have come to the fore under Cameron’s leadership. In 2005, Cameron was widely viewed as a moderniser. Upon winning the leadership of his party, he argued that Britain ‘had become a more open, more tolerant society over issues like race and sexuality and … the Conservative Party needed to modernize (sic) to catch up’.[8] He deflected attention away from the EU, immigration and taxation, and instead emphasised the Conservative’s commitment to flexible working, environmental protection, international aid and the NHS. Under his leadership the party rebranded with a new logo, and he undertook a series of media-friendly photo opportunities designed to emphasise the party’s commitment to environmental and social concerns.

Around 2008, however, Cameron began to display a more traditional message. As the global financial crisis hit he renounced key elements of his modernisation strategy, dropping the pledge to retain Labour’s public spending plans and articulating a new programme of financial austerity and stronger controls on immigration. Commitments to the environment and flexible working were quietly removed from the political agenda, and ‘modernisation’ disappeared from the party lexicon. The 2010 general election, therefore, was contested not from a modernising position but from a more traditionalist one. And this tactic was pursued even more robustly and comprehensively in 2015: the Conservatives focussed relentlessly on economic competence, reducing immigration, and the ‘danger’ to English voters of being governed by a weak Labour administration in hock to Scottish nationalists.

Cameron’s period as leader shows, first, that the party remains cautious of modernisation, and second, that it has discovered how to win power on a base of older, English voters – a minority of the electorate who can nonetheless deliver a majority of seats, given the effects of unequal turnout and Westminster’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

After Cameron: testing the limits of Conservative modernisation

Yet despite the political limits of Conservative modernisation, it remains a key source of ideological energy in the party. Within the party’s senior echelons there is vocal support for it, in established figures such as Francis Maude and Michael Gove as well as newer figures such as Robert Halfon and Jesse Norman. Thinktanks such as Bright Blue, as well as collectives such as Renewal and Tim Montgomerie’s Good Right have all helped to give shape to a modernising agenda: one that is self-conscious in its appeal to skilled working-class voters.

While differing in their precise form, calls for modernisation have variously indicated the need for the Conservative party to cultivate trust around the management of public services, support British diversity, help those on modest incomes, promote economic competence, create new connections with working-class voters, support the Living Wage, build affordable housing, protect the NHS, reach out to trade unionists, cut taxes for the low-paid, renew the infrastructure of the north of England, and build world-class public services.[9] For many modernisers these objectives are not antithetical to traditional values but rather complement established conservative concerns by articulating conservatives’ ‘commitment to build a society where everyone has a chance, everyone has a stake and where no one is left behind. A conservatism that doesn’t just want to reduce the state but knows how to make the government work for the people’.[10] In their different forms, then, these ideas are likely to constitute the basis of potential leadership candidates’ alternative pitches to voters as they seek to expand the party’s appeal across the centre of British politics.

Yet even if a moderniser is selected, it is by no means guaranteed that the new leader will be able to test whether modernisation is able to bring the Conservatives more electoral success than a traditional approach. As Cameron’s tenure in office reveals, it is possible both to give voice to a modernisation agenda and to fail to enact this in practice. This is because modernisation projects can occur at a number of different levels: they can focus on policy change and a reordering of principles (as Cameron’s arguably did), or they can involve more fundamental, ideological change, whereby old principles are laid aside in favour of new. Given the scale of division within the Conservative party and its recent history of internal dissent,[11] it appears unlikely that a fundamental ideological reappraisal is on the cards. Hence any renewed modernisation project is likely to be limited in scope and impact, and thus unable to test the full capacity of this process to change public perceptions and enhance electoral appeal.

Moreover, it would appear that any new modernisation project is likely be hampered by the decision from 2008 onwards to renege on the positions adopted by Cameron previously. Changing perceptions of a party’s identity is by no means easy, and it is vital to convey the sense that change is authentic and lasting if that party’s public statements are to be seen as a useful guide by which citizens can make decisions and cast their votes. In walking away from the modernisation project in 2008, Cameron gave the impression that his party’s rhetoric could not be trusted as a guide to its future behaviour. This imposes high barriers for any new leader seeking to redefine the party’s image in the public mind.

The face of a new leader: the vital issues that will shape the leadership contest

The election of a new Conservative party leader is therefore likely to see new battles between modernisers and traditionalists, with the key dividing lines emerging around how different ideological elements – on the economy, Europe, national identity and social liberalism – are combined into political projects capable of appealing, first, to Conservative MPs and party members, and then the public at large in 2020.

Whether Britain chooses to stay in the European Union or leave it, it is likely that the key cleavage in the leadership election will be between Eurosceptic ‘outers’ and pragmatic Euro-realist supporters of continued EU membership (in contrast to previous decades, there is unlikely to be a true Europhile, such as Ken Clarke or Michael Heseltine, standing). Candidates will be judged on where they stood in the referendum, and the depth of their commitment to Euroscepticism. As it stands, George Osborne – perhaps with the support of a more Eurosceptic running mate, such as Sajid Javid – will run as the Euro-realist candidate, against Boris Johnson or Theresa May for the Eurosceptic outers. Calculations about positioning in the leadership election will enter into candidates’ pre-referendum judgments about personal tactics.

The European question will also be refracted through the prism of immigration. A key modernising commitment of the early Cameron modernisation project was to embrace ethnic diversity and the benefits of migration. This has steadily been weakened, to the point where May now talks openly about the unsustainability of current levels of immigration. But modernisers and traditionalists will both be wary of sliding into an anti-migrant populism of the kind offered by Ukip. It marks the limits to any kind of Conservative political project that seeks both to secure older English voters and retain centrist cosmopolitan support.

The same must also be said about attempts to play the English card. The Conservatives cleverly used English political identity against both Labour and the Liberal Democrats at the last general election, but they cannot be seen to abandon their unionist commitments, nor to indulge racist or reactionary expressions of Englishness. (Although Labour’s failure to understand political English identity leaves the field open, with very little contestation of the Conservatives’ politically effective constructions of Englishness.)

The post-Cameron settlement on social liberalism is likely to endure for similar reasons. No candidate for the leadership can afford to be seen as rolling back the party’s commitments to sexual equality and gay rights. Nonetheless, the adoption of a married couple’s tax allowance in the party’s recent programme indicates that socially conservatism on family issues cannot be entirely dismissed. It has a standard-bearer in Iain Duncan Smith, who yokes it to a welfare reform agenda that has wide support within the party, and it will likely be an important ideological factor in the leadership contest.

Perhaps of greatest intellectual interest will be how the candidates construct alternative political economies. In his economic policy agenda, Osborne combines elements of the party’s Thatcherite and postwar One Nation traditions, at once neoliberal and soft interventionist. Johnson is more nakedly Thatcherite, but on the rare occasions that May has ventured into economic policy, she has sounded a more interventionist and almost nationalist tone, more redolent of Harold Macmillan than Nigel Lawson. If Britain’s structural economic weaknesses – low productivity, regional imbalances, weak export performance and shrunken manufacturing capabilities – remain unaddressed, these fault lines could be exposed, just as the contradictions in New Labour’s economic policy agenda were revealed by the financial crisis. One great uncertainty, therefore, hangs over the Tory leadership contest, namely whether Britain will experience another economic crisis before it takes place. If it does, the contest will take on an entirely different character, and so will the future of conservative ideology.

Kate Dommett is a lecturer in the public understanding of politics at the University of Sheffield.

This article appears in edition 22.3 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.

[1] See Hayton R (2012) Reconstructing Conservatism? The Conservative Party in Opposition, 1997–2010, Manchester University Press.

[2] In speeches of 1946 and 1947; see James RR (1974) Winston Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897–1963, Chelsea House.

[3] Cameron D (2010) ‘New Year podcast’, transcript, 31 December 2010.

[4] Ashcroft, Lord M (2005) Smell the Coffee: A wake up call for the Conservative Party, Politico.

[5] See Dahlgreen W (2014) ‘Britain’s changing political spectrum’, YouGov website, 23 July 2014.

[6] Shorthouse R, Maltby K and Brenton J (2014) ‘Introduction’, in Shorthouse R, Maltby K and Brenton J (eds) The Modernisers’ Manifesto, Bright Blue.

[7] See for example Binley B and Rotherham L (2015) Hard Bargains or Weak Compromises? Reforming Britain’s relationship with the EU, Civitas.

[8] Jones D (2010) Cameron on Cameron, Fourth Estate.

[9] See Shorthouse et al 2014; Good Right (2015) ‘Crosbyisation’.

[11] For more see Cowley P and Stuart M (2013) ‘This Parliament remains on course to be the most rebellious since 1945’, Conservative Home website, 14 May 2013.