The book explores the process of rebuilding the Conservative Party under David Cameron’s leadership since 2005. It argues that Cameron’s strategy was wide-ranging and multi-faceted and that it evolved through several stages from a coherent programme of explicit modernisation into a more diffuse set of reforms. This development was partly a result of changed thinking within the Party and partly because of the pressure of external events, especially the 2008 global financial crisis and the demands of coalition government between 2010 and 2015. It traces the different elements of the renewal strategy – leadership initiatives, ideological reconstruction, policy reappraisal and enhanced electoral appeal – and it identifies the constraints on implementing Party renewal that occurred as a result of opposition from within the Party, including the parliamentary Party and the grass roots membership. It also explores the extent to which long-standing intra-party fissures, especially over Europe , exacerbated difficulties for the leadership. The book shows that the process of renewal has been through a number of stages and that its progress has been indirect rather than linear. It suggests that, although the renewal project has been relatively successful in some respects including the return of the Conservatives to government, the extent to which it has created a new Conservative Party remains contested and the Party continues to display a dangerous disunity.
This introductory chapter provides an overview of the key themes of the book. It analyses David Cameron’s strategy for rebuilding Conservative electoral appeal and the evolution of his modernisation strategy from his election as leader in 2005 to the Conservative victory in the general election of 2015. It explores the difficulties associated with modernising a political party, notably disunity over its future direction. It sets Cameron’s efforts to renew the Conservative Party against profound changes in British politics, especially declining support for the two major parties and the growing strategic influence of smaller parties such as UKIP. Finally the chapter introduces the different perspectives of the various authors and highlights their contribution to the analysis.
The Conservative modernisation effort over the period of Cameron’s leadership needs to be placed against the backdrop of important changes in British electoral politics. These changes include voter dealignment , a growing dissatisfaction with the major parties as too similar to each other, voter volatility and a willingness to support minor parties. If the Cameron-led modernisation programme’s electoral goal was to broaden the Party’s appeal, to reach out to ethnic minority voters, younger voters, women, and voters throughout the United Kingdom then the record of accomplishment is modest. If, on the other hand, the modernisation project is understood as restoring the Party’s reputation as the party of managerial competence then it may have worked. Cameron’s modernisation approach from an electoral perspective may be best understood as pragmatic inclusiveness. In an era of when many voters are discontented but for different reasons this approach to modernisation may have helped return the Conservatives to power.
The conclusion evaluates the success of Cameron’s strategy of Conservative Party renewal. It argues that although the ambitious vision of Conservative modernisation was attenuated with time and the pressure of external events, some significant progress was made towards the broader goal of Party renewal. Even if the Conservative Party did not reconstruct radically its philosophy and policies , it did take steps towards a more socially liberal synthesis and did successfully diversify its candidates to present an image relevant to the twenty first century .It also re-established some of credibility as a Party with governmental competence and in 2010 and 2015 improved its electoral outreach. How long-lasting these achievements will prove is unclear. Labour’s move left under Corbyn and the weakened state of the Liberal Democrats offer Cameron space in the short-term at least to build further electoral advantage. But the EU referendum poses a renewed threat to party unity. Cameron’s period as Party leader saw some major accomplishments for a Party that had long been in the wilderness. Whether those accomplishments can be sustained will depend on how well the Conservative leadership handles divisive issues, especially the outcome of the referendum but also migration and Scotland, and on how far the Party can project a persuasive appeal into the next electoral cycle.