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Monday, March 04, 2013 

The Tory malaise.

There's been something almost touching about the way the Tories have reacted to coming third in Eastleigh.  To begin with, despite all the predictions of the party descending into crisis like a Premier League football team that's lost two games in a row, very little in the way of criticism from backbenchers was heard.  After 24 hours some thought better of this and started blaming the usual things: gay marriage, the "Conservative voice" not "clearly project[ing] Conservative core policies or principles", and the more realistic, the lack of organisation on the ground.

Come Sunday, and the panic had finally spread to the leadership.  There was a piece by the prime minister in the Sunday Telegraph, written in boilerplate about how we are in a  "battle to defeat some of the most dangerous challenges in our history" and the only way to ensure victory is to keep doing what we're doing.  There would be no lurch to the right.  Naturally, this means there was instantly a lurch to the right.  Chris Grayling and Theresa May competed on how we would repeal the Human Rights Act, apparently undecided as to whether we should just scrap it or get out of the European Convention altogether, while from out of nowhere came the idea from William Hague that we need to crack down on benefit tourism.  Not that there's the slightest evidence that EU nationals are indulging in such practices (there are legitimate concerns over whether non-EU foreign national are exploiting the NHS), but it makes for a good soundbite and will doubtless appeal to those currently flirting with UKIP.

The funny thing is that this is all a bit late.  It seems to have passed some Tories by, albeit not those who've been blaming Cameron ever since, but they didn't win the last election.  Looking back now, their best chance of a majority may well have been to try to govern as a minority after the election, then gone to the polls again as soon as they thought possible.  They obviously didn't know when they got the Lib Dems on board that the economy would stagnate for the next two years, although there were plenty who warned them their policies would achieve just that, but it was always going to be a uphill struggle to win a majority when you've spent the past half-decade imposing austerity, let alone when you also decide at the same time to go further and faster than Blair ever dared on welfare, education and NHS reform.

This isn't to say that there's no chance they can't turn it around, or indeed that this might prove a moment of false hope for the Liberal Democrats.  The facts are though that the Tories are in a bind: Michael Fabricant can say all he wants that the party hasn't been projecting core policies or principles, but this is utter nonsense.  Apart from the gay marriage bill which some in the party have made so much of for their own reasons, Cameron has for the most part done everything the right-wingers in the party have asked for: they've got their vote on Europe, he's capped benefits and introduced workfare to an extent Labour never dreamt of, free schools are all but the bringing back of selection, the 50p top rate of tax is gone, nuclear power looks to be the favoured way of keeping the lights on, and this has all been achieved with Lib Dem support! It's true that they would have liked to cut inheritance tax, wanted to alter the boundaries to give them a better chance in urban seats and most would rather defence spending was protected instead of international development, but the achievements are hardly inconsiderable.

And yet, and yet, they remain perhaps two further defeats away from wanting rid of the man who remains far more popular than his party. The beginner's mistake being made seems to be to regard UKIP's rise in support as being fundamentally connected with Europe and in turn immigration. In fact if they were to look at Lord Ashcroft's polling it suggests the vast majority of UKIP's recruits are those who've felt disenfranchised for a long time, angry at modern life and change in general rather than newly radicalised by the latest EU outrage. Moreover, they're also irreconcilable, or at least are without at the same time losing the support of almost everyone else.  As the most recent Ashcroft poll also suggested, the vast majority who voted for them in Eastleigh as a protest will return home come the election.  Moving further onto UKIP territory is therefore completely self-defeating, as the result itself suggested.

The real reason for the Tory malaise is far easier to diagnose. Regardless of how there didn't seem to be a protest directly against austerity in Eastleigh, the lack of growth and decline in wages in real-terms is ultimately driving the apathy if not outright hostility towards politics we've become all too accustomed to. Far from offering a solution, Cameron and Osborne tell us all we can do is keep taking the medicine. One thing those apparently ready to challenge Cameron are right about is that this month's budget is crucial.  Osborne is far too like Gordon Brown to not be planning something that will win him and the Tories positive headlines (at least initially) and further tax cuts look the most likely option.

Even if it is enough to stave off those eager to wield the knife, the local elections in May are almost certain to result in a Tory drubbing, as mid-terms invariably do to governing parties.  What Cameron and the Tories need is growth, and there's absolutely nothing to suggest they're going to get it without doing exactly the thing they've said they won't.  And even if they did, they've almost certainly left it too late to reap the benefits if such a change in direction worked.  Then again, what do they have to lose? 

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