Mile End Institute

Lessons from 2015: Conservatives

The Mile End Institute held a discussion on 9 February to mark the publication of The British General Election of 2015 by Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh.  Here Matthew d'Ancona, Visiting Fellow at QMUL's School of Politics and International Relations and columnist for the Guardian and Evening Standard reflects on the 2015 campaign.

12 February 2016

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I can locate precisely the moment when I realised that Cameron was going to remain Prime Minister after the general election. 

I can’t claim to have foreseen that he would win an absolute majority. But it was clear to me that he was going to stay in Number Ten.

I was writing a Long Read for the Guardian on the Prime Minister and went with him on 16 April to Scotland and then Yorkshire. 

In a call centre in Leeds – in what was then still Ed Balls’s constituency of Morley and Outwood – Cameron hosted one of his PM Direct sessions. 

He was standing in the middle of a huge stairwell, looking up a wall of faces that was really a living mural of multi-ethnic, contemporary Britain: most under 40, wearing jeans, hoodies, trainers. 

These people had come of age under New Labour and the old notion of the Conservatives as “the natural party of government” would have been meaningless to them.

To put it mildly: the atmosphere before his arrival was one of collective skepticism with a whiff of outright hostility. 

I heard the words “posh”, “southern” and “public school” muttered and someone behind me saying to his colleagues that he wished Boris Johnson was coming instead. 

I looked up at the wall of faces and wondered, quite seriously, if Cameron would make it out alive.

Yet – within the space of a few minutes – the wall of death had softened, as had the faces. Laughter churned and Cameron answered their questions with fluency and clarity. They warmed to it. 

Let me stress: this was not a moment of dazzling epiphany, a Messiah-following moment from the Life of Brian, but a shared experience of collective, cautious recognition. 

  • Watch Matthew d'Ancona, Polly MacKenzie, Spencer Livermore and Philip Cowley discuss the British General Election of 2015


He had neither sought nor been rewarded with love. But he had won their respect. 

Would many of them vote Tory on 8th May? 

Some of them certainly did, for Ed Balls, as we all know, lost his seat that night to the Conservatives’ Andrea Jenkyns.

Relentless focus

Anecdotes are limited guides to explanation – but then again so are opinion polls. 

For 20 years as a columnist and now chair of Bright Blue, I have been urging the Tory party to modernise, to decontaminate not only its image and the electorate’s perception of its motives, but also its priorities and objectives. 

Certainly, Cameron’s leadership has taken the party some of the way, and that process helped him achieve a majority. But I think the core reasons for his victory were more basic.

The first was the lessons learned from the 2010 campaign which was an unholy mess. 

Lynton Crosby insisted upon relentless focus upon the economy and Ed Miliband’s inadequacies as a prospective Prime Minister. 

There were times when the emphasis upon this dual theme was almost comically repetitive. But simplicity in any message communication is patently desirable.

The second was when the message was varied – as in the viral images of Miliband in Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon’s top pocket – it evidently struck a chord. 

The notion that Labour might depend upon the insurgent SNP to govern at Westminster evidently alarmed voters.

And the third was voters' doubts about Miliband as a plausible Prime Minister. This was business, not personal. I never sensed electoral antipathy to the Labour leader, an obviously amiable, clever and well-intentioned politician. 

But I wonder if the electorate had ever really seen him as a realistic candidate for the top job – any more than they did William Hague between 1997 and 2001.

Fourthly, the Tories’ emphasis upon “security” was the right response for them to make to the post-crash world. 

Austerity for nice people

How the political class must adapt to this new, scorched landscape is a whole other subject. One only has to look at the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, prefigured by the election of Bill de Blasio as New York mayor in 2014 and the populist movements across Europe to see that deep change is underway. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader is best understood in this context rather than as a coup by the restorationist Left. Only six years since it was the party of government, Labour is now the British Podemos or Syriza. It is a coalition of issue-based campaigns rather than an engine for the achievement of power – an amazing change in only a few months.

Miliband was right to raise the question of inequality, restored to the centre of debate by the crash and its aftermath. But he was wrong to conclude that the entire electorate had shifted left in a single heave. 

His confused economic message – austerity for nice people – was hopelessly confused and confusing. 

Cameron didn’t try to match it, either. He stuck to the “security” theme as his response to electoral anxieties – a theme agreed in 2013 at a meeting at Chequers – and it worked, or, more accurately, worked well enough.

Briefly, what are the consequences of the 2015 election?

1. The Union is now held together by sticky tape and Pritt. Nationalist politics was a big winner – the SNP, in particular, and in terms of vote share, Ukip as the misnamed party of the outraged English. This time, Labour faces more than its traditional crisis of southern discomfort – it must renew itself there, but also start from scratch in Scotland.

2. The destruction of the Lib Dems leaves a huge vacancy to be filled if the party cannot renew itself. There are votes to be stolen semi-permanently by the sharpest jackdaws in Westminster – from the Greens to the Tories.

3. The Tory victory ensured that the European genie would be out of the bottle and free to cause mischief. I do not think for a second that the referendum will be the end of the matter any more than the Scottish vote in 2014 put the issue of secession to bed. I think the Right may well split in some fashion over this issue. Watch this space.