Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Conservatives and the 2015 General Election

Libby McEnhill discuses the Conservatives and the 2015 general election.

With just three days to go until the general election, polling continues to indicate that the competition will be close between Labour and the Conservatives. Accounting for potential surprises from both the SNP and UKIP, not to mention the effect that five years of coalition government might have on the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats, the composition of the next UK government still hangs in the balance. What seems almost certain is that neither party will win a majority. For David Cameron’s Conservatives, this leaves open a range of possibilities. 
The first of these – and, if the final pre-election polls are to be believed, the most likely – is that the Conservatives will be the largest party and will likely have first attempt at forming a government, presumably with Cameron as leader. One question concerns whether there is scope to form a second coalition. The Conservatives have done rather well from the Cameron-Clegg government. They claimed all of the major offices of state, guaranteeing high levels of influence and visibility. In this they were aided unwittingly by the Liberal Democrats, who misjudged this central element of the negotiation process and have been widely perceived as ‘propping up’ the Conservatives as a result.[1]
Yet Conservative backbenchers have expressed considerable disquiet with Coalition policy, evident in the high number of rebellions in this parliament, and the Liberal Democrats may have neither the numbers nor the inclination to repeat the experience. Current polling suggests that Cameron and Nick Clegg’s parties will win around 270 and 25 seats respectively. Adding in DUP and UKIP seats still leaves a Tory-led coalition short of a majority, even before party leader preferences regarding their coalition partners is taken into account (Clegg, for example, has ruled out participating in any coalition deal that involves UKIP).[2] Minority Conservative government, or even a minority coalition, is therefore perhaps the best that Tories can hope for. However, regardless of whether or not they are able to form a government, such a result would leave the Conservatives facing some difficult questions about the party’s future.

The resolution of these in the longer term will likely be determined as much by how Conservatives interpret such a result than by the result itself. 2015 would mark twenty-three years since the party last won an election outright. Tory MPs and members already feeling aggrieved by the failure to win a majority in 2010 will struggle to see a repeat performance in 2015 as a ringing endorsement of either the Coalition itself or their party, policies, and perhaps leader, more broadly. The sense of a missed opportunity will be heightened by the even more fortuitous circumstances that the Conservative Party finds itself in this year. Cameron is considerably more popular than Ed Miliband, the economy is experiencing an upturn and, set against this, Labour has struggled to regain a reputation for competency on this key issue in the face in the face of on-going Coalition attacks.

Concerted attempts to alter the Conservative Party’s image under Cameron’s leadership will not seem to have paid off in electoral terms. Conservative modernisation remains contentious. The direction that it should take has never been widely agreed between the party’s more liberal and conservative wings. It has proceeded haltingly and in different directions within different policy areas. Intra-party contention over the totemic same-sex marriage legislation in 2013 rendered divisions over modernisation painfully obvious.[3] There is every chance that a failure to win the election outright will be interpreted by those quarters of the party that never fully supported Cameronite modernisation in the first place as evidence of the inadequacy of its less traditional elements. Failure to form a government would almost certainly signal the end of Cameron’s leadership. However, even if he is able to form a government and remain as leader, Cameron can expect calls to revert to more traditionally Conservative issues to become louder, particularly if UKIP continues to be seen to be encroaching on socially conservative Tory supporters.

Yet there is evidence that this would be a strategic error. As one analysis of the 2010 result suggested, the problem that the Conservatives faced in that year was that the party was not perceived to have changed enough.[4] Five years later it confronts a similar problem. It continues to lag behind Labour on key issues such as the NHS and education, and a central problem is that the focus on these in opposition was not effectively carried through into government: instead, Conservatives banked on a lead on the economy being enough to carry their party through into a second term. It are also widely identified as a sectional party, and while the leadership’s ability to ‘take tough and unpopular decisions’ was perceived by up to 62% of voters between 2010 and 2015, only 20% to 25% felt that its ‘heart is in the right place’ in doing so.[5] Reverting to a core vote strategy would do little to address these voter concerns, and seems unlikely to be conducive to extending the share of the vote in 2020. 

The short campaign has brought indications that the Conservative leadership is somewhat sensitive to these problems. Details on a further £12bn cuts to welfare spending have not been forthcoming, and the manifesto - in contrast with Labour’s rather austere offering - instead contains surprising pledges including extending the ‘right to buy’ to housing association tenants and an apparently unfunded extra £8bn per year for the NHS. Even the Big Society enjoys a brief renaissance.[6] Yet a failure to win outright will suggest is that this is too little, too late. Despite being alleviated somewhat by Cameron’s leadership, the perception of the Conservatives as the ‘nasty party’ remains a considerable barrier to its electoral success. 

Libby McEnhill is a doctoral candidate at the University of Huddersfield. She also teaches at the University of Kent.

[1] McEnhill, L. (2015) Unity and distinctiveness in UK Coalition government: Lessons for junior partners, Political Quarterly, 86 (1), pp. 101-109
[2], Can any party win a majority? Accessed 01.05.15,
[3] Hayton, R. and McEnhill, L. (2015) Cameron’s Conservative Party, social liberalism and social justice, British Politics, advance online 20 April 2015, doi: 10.1057/bp.2015.11
[4] Bale, T (2011) The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 396
[6] Conservative Party (2015) Strong leadership; A clear economic plan; A brighter, more secure future: Conservative manifesto 2015, London: Conservative Party


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