Why 2016 will not be a Tory Wonderland

Why was 2015 the ‘Goldilocks Election’? Why can’t Osborne succeed as Conservative leader? Why will the Tories be forced to return to the dirty politics of the 1980s?

As 2015 draws to an end, the Prime Minister is sure to look back on the past twelve months with pride. Since January, the Tory leader has managed win a spectacular Conservative majority, secure a European referendum, control his backbenchers, effectively disband UKIP and outlast his two main election rivals. Additional internal conflict within the opposition benches has caused an apparent rise in the Tory party’s approval ratings – sometimes hitting the low 40s – unheard of during an era of recession.

But how is this possible? How has Cameron managed to end the year as the clear victor?
With the Scottish Conservatives having performed relatively badly in 2010, the Prime Minister had little to lose from the SNP’s sweep of the north. Nicola Sturgeon formed a nationalist ‘coup’ with the aim of thumping Cameron’s government at its weakest point – its lack of humanity. Instead, the ‘Scottish lion roared’ [1] (to quote former SNP leader Alex Salmond) and directed its fire towards Cameron’s only alternative – Labour leader Ed Miliband.

Fear with the economy, the increasing influence of the media and Tory myths also had parts to play in providing Cameron with a working majority of twelve MPs.

2016 is likely to be Cameron’s last full year at Number 10. From then, he is guaranteed a smooth exit from office – passing on his role to a loyal colleague such as Home Secretary Theresa May or (more likely) to school friend George Osborne. Gone are the bitter days of Ted Heath, Michael Heseltine and Margaret Thatcher.

Or so the Tories would like to think.

Unlike most of Cameron’s premiership, it may transpire that 2016 is the year when dirty Tory politics returns – the kind of image the Prime Minister has spent his decade at the top trying to hide.
Below are a string of issues which may stump leading Tories in the coming months:

Europe
   In the face of an apparently divided opposition, the Conservatives have kept together – desperate not to fall into the lengthy ideological debates which have engulfed the Labour Party for over seven months.
The Tory leader is keen to unite his cabinet around one central issue – the topic which has plagued the party for decades – Europe.
Even though Cameron is yet to declare which way he will vote, it’s pretty clear he doesn’t want the ‘out’ campaign to win. No matter how many times he strides into European summits attempting to appear the reformer, challenger and alpha male, we all know he does not want to leave office as the ‘isolationist’ Prime Minister that ordered Britain to ‘retreat’ from the world. He’s too worried about his legacy to do something as careless as that.

Although every general election is different, Conservatives are likely to examine the role played by key ministers in the run up to the vote of 2015. Party members will want to know the candidates that can successfully carry an image of modern ‘compassionate Conservatism’ and the ones who cannot.

I believe the Tory party won a majority for three reasons:

  • The public’s perception of Ed Miliband as a potential Prime Minister
  • The SNP
  • The existing First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system.

Like most elections, victory was formed from the collapse of the alternatives. For the Conservatives, the conditions were just right. It was a Goldilocks election.
A Prime Minister and Chancellor who remain loyal and trusting friends is a rarity in British politics – especially within Conservative politics. Most see this as the crux that will fulfil Osborne’s true ministerial ambitions.
Infact, most pundits predict Cameron’s iron chancellor and Etonian schoolmate will become Tory leader and Prime Minister. The Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 means that (if elected), Osborne will have over two years to mould his type of Conservatism before standing for election in 2020.
So far, Osborne (like Cameron) was able to shrug off his family background and education without significant damage to his reputation. But a more recent history is likely to stick with the frontrunner. Osborne is the face of 21st century austerity and is well known for missing his financial targets. But unlike Cameron, Osborne would not enter the leadership race as a youthful outsider. Having accepted the title of First Secretary of State, he is effectively the Prime Minister’s de facto deputy. But even this ministerial appointment may be too little too late for the political operator.
Beyond the recession, after the frontbenchers retire and after a new generation of Tories join the fray, George Osborne will be remembered as the Conservative chancellor that privatised, cut and shrank industry and like no other before him. He will live on as the patron saint of Conservatism – but for all the wrong reasons.

Ignore the polls, they tell you nothing
It’s worth noting that a year before his election as Tory leader in 2001, Iain Duncan Smith placed 6th in Ladbrokes’ leadership polls. Michael Howard was 7th in 2002 and Cameron 3rd in 2005. [2]

2016 is likely to be a significant year for the Conservatives. A quick transfer of power seems unlikely for a party that has recently become Britain’s slickest electoral machine. Alliances will be formed and secret deals made – that’s for sure. What remains unknown is what kind of Conservatism will enter the race for Number 10 in 2020.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-32641223
[2] http://news.ladbrokes.com/politics/tory-leadership-contests-a-betting-history.html

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