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John Petley: The day Project Cameron died

Friday, March 1, 2013 9:00
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Who are the biggest losers from the Eastleigh by-election? One is tempted to say the voters of the constituency. Poor them – until a month ago, they were represented by one of the most unpleasant MPs in the House of Commons, but being having been relieved of this odious man by his admission that he lied over a speeding offence, they then voted for another Lib Dem. Will some people never learn?

In reality, the biggest loser is David Cameron. His project to “modernise” the Conservative Party finally bit the dust in Hampshire yesterday. I can’t help feeling sorry for their candidate Maria Hutchings. She appeared to hold sensible views on a number of issues, including Europe, yet she ended up coming third to UKIP’s Diane James, who fought a professional and well-supported campaign in what most commentators had regarded as a two-horse race. A great pity Mrs James didn’t win.

Speaking as someone who has stood as a candidate myself, I think that you can have a problem when you knock on doors or speak in hustings: it’s as though people don’t see you but your party leader instead. A few voters supported Mrs Hutchings because they recognised her personal qualities, but for all too many voters in Eastleigh, the big shadow of David Cameron was looming over her, and this put them off.

In May 2011, Anthony Scholefield and Gerald Frost published Too “Nice” to be Tories?, a critique of Cameron’s modernising agenda.  They made the point that the number of urban touchy-feely politically correct types who had been won for the Conservatives by the Tory ‘re-branding’ was miniscule compared with the people who were not social democrats, who  actually wanted a ‘nasty’ party and had deserted the Tories in consequence. “Desperate to confirm the good opinion of the media and metropolitan elites, it sometimes seemed that the Tory leadership would do anything to be popular except advance popular measures,” said the authors – thinking of tougher stances on crime, immigration and the EU. Since then, David Cameron appears to have learnt nothing. True, he has promised an in-out referendum in 2017, in the event of the Conservatives winning the next election, an action which was meant to lance the UKIP boil. Yesterday’s evidence suggests that it has failed spectacularly. If the Tories, with a candidate untainted with the ‘modernizing’ agenda can’t take Eastleigh from a Lib Dem party suffering not only from the Chris Huhne affair but from the allegations over Lord Rennard, then there is no hope whatever of them winning the 2015 election under the present leader.

Most people remember Airey Neave as the Tory MP tragically murdered by the IRA in 1979.  He is less remembered as the MP who recognised that the Tories faced a similar dilemma in 1974: in Edward Heath they had leader who was an electoral liability. Something had to be done. After failing to persuade Sir Keith Joseph, Willie Whitelaw and Edward du Cann to challenge Heath for the leadership, he eventually settled on Margaret Thatcher, and the rest is history. Is there an Airey Neave in today’s Conservative party? One can only hope so, and that whoever he (or she) is, they act quickly. Otherwise, as Private Fraser of Dad’s Army so graphically put it, “we’re all doomed – doomed!”


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