After three years of a Conservative-led Coalition government, Tim Bale asks what is left of the modernisation of the Tory party and who among its leading lights might carry the torch for party modernisation after David Cameron steps down.

In the run-up to the election that eventually deposited him in Downing Street, David Cameron reminded people that 'what matters is where you're going to, not where you come from'. As a way of swatting away concerns about his privileged background, it was smart. But it was also fundamentally misleading. After all, where someone - or something - hails from helps to determine how far and in which direction they will travel in the future. To understand what has become of Tory modernisation and to guess where it might be headed, we therefore have to understand what it was in the first place: a contingent, ambivalent affair, latched onto rather than actually led by Cameron, and a challenge to Conservative instincts that was always more limited and less head-on than its standard-bearers liked to suggest.

Modernisation mk I: Baked-in ambiguity

Like most political 'projects' - including New Labour, the phenomenon to which it constituted a belated Conservative response - Tory modernisation mixed symbols and substance. As such, it was always pretty hard to pin down; indeed, its very imprecision and ambiguity were part of its charm. Its main purpose, after all, was to signal that the party knew that it needed to get out of the rut it in which it was stuck and that it was at last ready, willing and able to make the changes required to do so. Its advocates hoped to persuade as many of their colleagues as possible that they were right, even if only by convincing them that history - and public opinion - was on their side. They were emphatically not in the business of producing a set of precise promises and concrete commitments that would alienate more potential allies than absolutely necessary - or of creating what might become hostages to fortune. Tory modernisation, then, was always heavier on diagnosis than on prescription - it was as much an attitude and an argument as it was any kind of alternative manifesto.

Some aspects of Tory modernisation seemed clear enough at first glance. But even then there was room for manoeuvre (if you were a fan) or cause for concern (if you were a critic). Its earliest and most widely recognised focus, for instance, was on the party 'fessing and facing up to the fact that society and social mores had changed in ways which could not be reversed and which, therefore, ought not to be railed against. How far all this actually went, however, was a moot point. On one hand, the party was urged to declare an end to its war on single parents. On the other hand, by insisting that society was somehow 'broken' and that many of its problems were rooted in poor parenting and family breakdown, even the young Turks who portrayed themselves as progressives out to wrest ownership of the idea of 'social justice' from the centre-left were giving the distinct impression that hostilities had not in fact ceased after all.

By the same token, even among those who argued that Britain was (irrevocably and in many ways advantageously) a multiracial country, there existed a degree of ambivalence, even antipathy, towards multiculturalism - the idea that different ethnicities can preserve practices and a degree of autonomy that might to the mainstream majority seem strange and even scary. Likewise, however much they wanted the party to win back well-heeled, well-educated AB voters by 'turning down the volume' on asylum and immigration, modernisers had to concede the electoral necessity of continuing to hit Labour in one of the places where it hurt most. Obsessing less about Europe was always going to be difficult, what with a generational shift within its own ranks from a 'soft' reform-focused Euroscepticism to a harder version that wanted out, and developments in the EU itself provoking genuine anxiety among all those who were concerned about further integration. The modernisers' twin claims that that the UK should be a leader not a laggard when it came to foreign aid and the green agenda were bound, too, to draw flak as the nation's finances went from bad to worse, turning such things (at least in the eyes of their opponents and large numbers of ordinary voters) from tiresome international obligations into costly luxuries.

Another key argument of the modernisers - albeit one that arrived relatively late on in the piece, probably courtesy of the late-lamented Steve Hilton - was that politicians had better get used to operating in the 'post-bureaucratic age'. By this account, technology and people's desire for more control over their lives, as well as their growing lack of faith in centralised, top-down solutions, would inevitably result in a demand for services that were more locally determined and accountable, more flexibly and rapidly delivered, and more individually tailored to the needs of the customer rather than those of the producer. But again there was a degree of ambivalence, not least because - in a country where central government has almost complete control over the getting and spending of tax revenue - the requirement for an 'age of austerity' was almost certain to trump both localism and the promotion of a 'big society' composed of third-sector groups that were as well funded as they were intentioned.

Arguably, Tory modernisation was at its most ambiguous (critics would say disingenuous) when it came to public services and public spending - and, indeed, the economy more generally. While it was often portrayed, both by its supporters and its critics, as being about social and cultural liberalism - being nicer to minorities, kinder to the environment, tolerating the non-traditional, being slightly less beastly to the Germans (and, well, just about everyone else in Europe) - it was always about something more than that. Insofar as Tory modernisation was a response to and a coming to terms with the Britain that New Labour had helped to usher into being, it was also a recognition that pledging ever-lower taxes and keeping the nation's health, education and pension systems on shorter and shorter rations was no way either to run the country or to persuade voters that you could be trusted to run it the way most of them wanted it run. Just as Labour had to 'concede and move on' when it came to, say, trade union law, privatisation of utilities and the independent nuclear deterrent, the Conservatives had to realise that the electorate knew that you can't get something for nothing, felt wedded to public provision in areas where the market tends to fail, and wanted those services run by a government that didn't make it obvious that it would really rather move everything and everybody into the private sector.

And yet, and yet... If the Conservative party was not about reducing the role and the size of the state - mired in inefficiencies, crowding out enterprise and initiative, creating clients and co-dependence, limiting individual freedom, and expropriating income and wealth - then what exactly was it for? Hence, perhaps, the audible sigh of relief when the economic downturn revealed that Gordon Brown, while he may have helped save the world, had not in fact abolished boom and bust. This in turn allowed George Osborne to escape his (at the time shockingly centrist) commitment to match Labour's spending plans - a commitment soon forgotten as the new chancellor embraced fiscal and supply-side orthodoxy with an enthusiasm that has impressed even hardcore Thatcherites.

Modernisers in power: Something old, something new

Tory modernisation, then, was not simply about lots of middle-aged men tirelessly - and, famously, tie-lessly - telling everyone that the Conservative party had moved on from both the Thatcher era and its post-'97 reductio ad absurdum and was now perfectly at ease in 21st-century Britain. But nor was it as much of a departure or a rupture, or indeed as single-minded and single-sided, as it was sometimes portrayed. As a result, although it shouldn't simply be written off as a shallow snow job, neither should it be set up as a noble cause since betrayed by cynics or blown off course by events - or at least by the decision to prioritise deficit reduction. In other words, if Tory modernisation seems to have stalled rather than snowballed, or, as we suggest below, to have been sublimated into a concern with government process rather than government policy, then this development (or, rather, lack of development) has its origins in modernisation's original ambivalence and contradictions, both of which were bound to be more or less cruelly exposed once the party moved from opposition into office.

Not everything that was solid - or at least halfway solid - about modernisation has melted into air. As if to provide proof of its centrality to the project, parts of the socially liberal agenda have been pursued to the last and to the letter, sometimes at considerable cost to the reputation of its advocates, up to and including the prime minister himself. Neither legislating for gay marriage nor sticking to the commitment to ringfence overseas aid spending make much sense to large numbers of Conservative MPs and grassroots members, or indeed to a fair few members of the general public. But they send out a signal to the so-called chattering classes that Cameron and those around him retain at least some of the principles that gained the Tories 'permission to be heard' before the last election. This signalling is important, as although the gaining of permission didn't translate into votes at the ballot box in 2010, it will need to do so soon if the party is to stand much chance of improving on its fortunes in 2015. Here, presumably, the calculation is that neither policy is likely to result, at least in and of itself, in many votes going elsewhere. That said, it is hard to see either the current government or any future Conservative (or Conservative-led) government pushing things any further in this direction. This is not simply because the party has had its fingers burned; rather, it is not immediately obvious what remains to be ticked off the socially liberal to-do list.

Meanwhile, other aspects of that same agenda have not merely failed to withstand the transition from opposition into government but were fatally compromised from the start. It may be ironic that it has fallen to a home secretary once seen as an arch-moderniser for publicly branding her own party as 'nasty' to preside over an immigration regime more restrictive than many experts imagined would be practically possible - but the introduction of that regime was surely inevitable. Theresa May, after all, is not only carrying out the party's electorally crucial commitment to reduce numbers coming in 'from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands' but, in doing so, is also strengthening her claim in the long-term to take over from Cameron, who is himself determined that that particular pledge - popular with people who might be lured away from Labour and persuaded not to vote Ukip - will be fulfilled. Equally importantly, it can hardly be said that the groups most immediately affected - further (as opposed to higher) education and families seeking reunification - have a reputation for fighting their corner as effectively as business, which could be granted concessions wholly in-keeping with the government's modernising desire to see 'the brightest and the best' (and the best-off) still able to enter the country almost at will.

What is perhaps surprising are the more recent measures like demanding bonds from visitors from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Ghana, and mounting stop-and-search operations and poster campaigns against illegal immigrants. Such initiatives seem deliberately to court accusations of racial discrimination, and they put paid to the party's admittedly nascent and half-hearted efforts to at least think about how it might begin to make inroads into the minority ethnic vote. If, as it appears, those policies were not, as many had assumed, directly driven by the Conservatives' campaign manager, Lynton Crosby, then their introduction is either tantamount to his indirect influence or - in a mirror image of the gay marriage/overseas aid cases - born of a calculation that the votes gained (or at least retained) as a consequence were likely to be higher than the number lost. Whatever, critics are bound to say that this is playing to the gallery rather than getting us closer to the 'grown-up' debate about the issue that Cameron always claimed in opposition that he wanted.

Much the same could be said about the lack of government-sponsored fanfare for the first fruits of its self-styled objective review of the 'balance of competences' regarding this country's relationship with the EU, at least compared with the ramping-up of rhetoric around an in/out referendum. Once again, however, very few people ever really believed - modernisation or no modernisation - that the Conservative party would be either willing or able to stop 'bashing Brussels'. It is the proverbial itch that must be scratched, the craving that must be satisfied, the once-furious argument that is by now an unthinking assumption.

Conservative attitudes to deprivation and welfare, of course, are just as instinctive. However - some would say fortunately - they are rather more complex, mixing as they do concerns about individual responsibility and the need to avoid creating a dependency culture, on one hand, with an acknowledgment that society (not necessarily but if needs be via the state) owes a duty of care to the truly needy. Given that complexity, it is perfectly understandable how people were able to buy into the idea of 'compassionate conservatism' and even 'the big society' - although not, it must be said, how they swallowed the suggestion made by some modernisers in opposition that the Conservatives were now at one with Polly Toynbee, doyenne of the Guardian-reading liberal left, having at last recognised relative as well as absolute poverty. Certainly, the trend of Conservative policy in government has been highly traditional, focusing help towards 'those who really need it' while, in straitened times, denying it to those whose who are not much better-off but can apparently do without. Indeed, the pressure put on families deemed to be occupying more space than they need or doing better on benefits than those who are working, alongside moves toward removing financial incentives for teenage motherhood while reinventing them for marriage, smack (to some anyway) more of curtain-twitching moralising and the redrawing of crude dividing lines than of a simple return to good housekeeping.

The desire to save money - indeed, the necessity of doing so - does, however, have its limits. These limits were set by the modernisers' recognition that there are, at least in the short term and above the electoral waterline, certain aspects of public provision that can perhaps be reengineered but cannot simply be ploughed under. Hence, increased competition can be introduced into the health service but the service must remain, and be seen to remain - to use Cameron's endlessly repeated appropriation - 'our NHS', with its spending protected (albeit not in real terms) from cuts made almost everywhere else. Pensions and pensioners likewise are still sacred cows, fattened even further by the honouring of what became a cross-party (and phenomenally expensive) commitment to reverse the Thatcher government's decision to decouple payments from wages and tie them instead to prices.

Like health, the schools budget is sold as being protected from cuts. But here, just as in the Home Office, we see a former moderniser - indeed, one of the original holy trinity of Portillo (the father), Gove (the son) and Maude (the holy spirit) - presiding over policies that enrage opponents at least in part because they appear to hark back to some sort of golden age rather than to point to the future. Again, however, the stress on absolutes and on timeless verities implicit in the return to an imagined corpus of knowledge and the 'three Rs' should come as no surprise: it provides yet another illustration of the fact that Tory modernisation never intended to throw out the baby with the bathwater. In any case, Gove can (and does) point to the fact that his promotion of free schools and academies not only builds on Blair's reforms (often a clincher for Tory modernisers) but is also devolving power to meet the demands of parents, teachers and, of course, the 'post-bureaucratic age'. After all, the logic and the future of this policy is not about privatising education, at least in the crude sense of making parents pay for schooling out of their own pockets, even if profit-making concerns are eventually approved as providers. Instead, it is about cutting out the middle-man - in this case, local education authorities. Those who argue that such bodies play a useful planning and coordinating function will find themselves up against a basic Conservative belief - one held by modernisers and traditionalists alike - that markets (or in this case quasi-markets) are actually far better at matching demand and supply, and at driving out poor performers, and therefore at meeting the public's myriad preferences.

The question begged by all this, of course, revolves around what constitutes 'localism'. Gove's critics operate on the assumption that it is intermediate bodies like LEAs that constitute 'the local'. Similarly, those opposed to what they see as pathetically small-minded, pro-motorist initiatives taken by the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, make the same assumption with regard to parish, district and county councils, as well as unitary authorities. As a result, almost anything the two men do to drive down power beyond such bodies can be condemned as centralisation even by Conservative councillors - especially by those aware of what they see as the party's long and proud traditions in local government. If Tory modernisers, however, stick to their guns and hold fast to this new definition of the local - one that actually goes deeper than the level at which democracy can reasonably operate, the better to serve some sort of sovereign individual - then the potential for creating an unmediated relationship between citizen and central government, and the services ultimately funded by central government, is unlimited.

Modernisation mk II: From government to governance - or simply 'Michael, Theresa or Boris'?

It may be no coincidence, then, that the area in which Tory modernisation may end up achieving the most - albeit under the radar of voters - is not policy but process. In other words, it is not so much what government does as how it does it. Nor, perhaps, is it a coincidence that the man at the cutting edge is Francis Maude, the modernisers' moderniser. Speaking in June 2013, Maude criticised Whitehall's 'bias to inertia' and talked of his plans to bring in ministerial cabinets and more outsiders into the civil service - all appositely based on a report by a centre-left thinktank (IPPR) on overseas practice, paid for out of the new 'Contestable Policy Fund'. For anyone thinking about Tory modernisation's lasting legacy, this initiative is definitely one to watch. So, too, is Maude's other baby, the Government Digital Service, which is shaking up Whitehall by (again) cutting out some very inefficient and expensive middle-men, although this time (rather counterintuitively for a former Thatcherite perhaps) by in-housing rather than out-sourcing.

Pessimists - even those who aren't predicting an inexorable shift in the civil service towards the American spoils system where a change of administration means jobs for the incoming party's boys - will counter that we have seen at least some of this before, and to no great effect. Those with long memories will remember, for instance, not only Thatcher's attempts to bring in some business sense but Ted Heath's plans (worked up in great detail for him by Lord Howell) for 'a new style of government'. Heath's plans, however, had little or no buy-in from his colleagues, most of whom believed they would, and found they could, manage very nicely with the 'Rolls Royce' service already in place. Cameron's ministers, in contrast, appear to have experienced - and, what is more, to have intimated - a degree of frustration (worrying to some, refreshing to others) with what they have to work with. This suggests that, notwithstanding some predictable departmental irritation at GDS asking them stupid (for which read intelligent) questions, Maude may be pushing at an open door.

That said, there is no guarantee that the very inertia and vested interests that Maude hopes to overcome won't end up doing for his plans, wholly or in part. If so, he will not be the only quintessential moderniser to have gone down fighting. Perhaps the bravest of them all is planning minister Nick Boles, the former director of Policy Exchange, whose 2010 book, Which Way's Up? remains a key text for modernisers. He, like Maude, is sold on the need to shake up both Whitehall and Town Hall. Now, as planning minister, Boles is charged with walking the talk, by persuading shire and home-county Tories that the only way to house the UK's growing population is to reform radically the outdated and overprotective planning laws that, as many of them see it, are the key to keeping the oiks out and their property prices up. Boles' outspoken approach brings him into direct conflict not just with sharp-elbowed 'rural rights' pressure groups but with local authorities too, many of them Conservative-controlled. He also has to face the wrath of the party in the media as, on this issue anyway, red tape turns from the source of all our problems into all that's preventing developers from concreting over the countryside. Rather predictably, this desire to conserve green spaces, not just from housing but also windfarms, is pretty much all that's left - or at least all that's visible - of the much-vaunted conversion to environmentalism to which Cameron returned again and again when he first took over as leader in 2005.

How much support modernisers like Maude and Boles have, either from the grassroots or from their frontbench and backbench colleagues, is debatable. Moreover, despite it being crucial to the economy in the long term, there seems to be little connection, seamless or otherwise, between their work and the government's economic policy - partly, perhaps, because the latter has always been something of a Cinderella subject for Tory modernisers. The reason for that does not lie wholly in the fact that most of them remain no more and no less than convinced Thatcherites on such matters - Boles, for example, has more than a touch of the Heseltine or Mandelson about him when it comes to kickstarting a joined-up enterprise culture. But it does leave 'modernisation mk II' with little to say on what, in the end, is likely to make or break a Conservative government's fortunes.

No doubt modernisers like Boles and Maude will continue to tell it like it is rather than as people on their own side would like it to be; that is who they are or have become. But just because 'telling like it is' has been at the heart of the Tory modernisers' approach from the very beginning does not mean that they will inevitably end up determining the Conservative party's direction or even make a success of their own pet projects. Not surprisingly, success for the modernisers has proved easier to achieve when what they propose goes with rather than against the grain of conventional Conservative thinking. For the most part, however innovative they might have been said to be, most of the government initiatives directly associated with Tory modernisation fall into the former, more convenient category, the welfare reforms being a case in point. Or else, as with gay marriage, they have simply offended traditionalists' opinions rather than, as with planning reform, threatened their material interests. Or, like some (though not all) of the immigration and education measures, they are simply traditionalist policies that can claim little or no convincing connection with modernisation other than that they have been introduced by ministers associated, at least in a previous life, with that cause, namely May and Gove, both of whom clearly are now big beasts and therefore in a much better position than, say, Maude and Boles to influence the party's agenda over the coming years. Indeed, along with Boris Johnson, they are widely tipped as future leaders should Cameron not make it back into Downing Street in 2015 or, if he does, should he decide not to 'do a Thatcher' (or a Blair) and outstay his welcome.

Interestingly, how many and which of the measures directly or indirectly associated with modernisation end up making a real and lasting impact is unlikely to be overly affected by Cameron's personal departure. His signature stances on gay marriage and foreign aid notwithstanding, the prime minister is, as he has always been, more of an incarnation of modernisation than its driving inspiration. Whether it would receive a new lease of life under another leader - be it a 'ground-floor' moderniser like Gove or one of those who 'got it' early on, like May - is debatable, not least because both of them have now had more than a taste of what feels like to be loved by traditionalists too. The fact that both have stayed in the same post since assuming office in 2010 and (the odd excursion by May excepted) have therefore stuck mainly to their own briefs, also means that it is difficult to see exactly how or (even whether) they would renew the project in policy terms. It may be, of course, that modernisation mk II, like the Conservative party itself, is simply waiting for Boris. That, however, could prove to be a very long and ultimately very frustrating game. Even if it's one that the current mayor of London ends up winning, his talent for being all things to all Tories - the infrastructure interventionist and pro-immigration advocate who's happy to bash Brussels but not the bankers - means that anticipating what that win would mean for the party, let alone for modernisation, is to see through a glass very, very darkly.

This article appears in the latest issue of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas. An edited version appeared in the Telegraph, 30 September 2013.