Electoral Reality Calls

04.01.13

Why David Cameron's Tories Can't Veer Right

PAUL ROGERS/AFP/Getty Images ()

These are dark and precarious times for David Cameron. Consistently behind in the polls and with real economic recovery as distant a prospect as ever, many members of the Conservative family of MPs, activists and pundits have become restive, if not actively mutinous.

David recently highlighted the most striking example: Tim Montgomerie, arch-Tory loyalist and a key indicator of center-right opinion.

But this is only one side of the story. In a recent (paywalled) column for the Times of London, Matthew Parris (one of the finest political essayists alive today) made a seemingly obvious but striking observation: nearly all of those arguing that Cameron should become more radically right-wing are either non-elected pundits or members of parliament with very large majorities, who are unlikely to be voted out of parliament even in the event of a heavy Conservative defeat.

What about those Tory MPs with a precarious hold on their seats, who will actually have to fight for every vote?

So this week I decided to tune out the media noise, the striking of ideological positions and the microphone-grabbing of those with the most colourful opinions, and ask the view of that part of the Parliamentary Conservative Party who must work the hardest simply to keep their seats at the next election: the MPs with such slender majorities that they wake up in the night and sweat about where each vote will come from. MPs with numbers like 333 (Lancaster & Fleetwood), 214 (Sherwood) or 54 (N Warwickshire) tattooed on to their eyelids.

Let’s call them the Forty: the 40 most marginal Tory seats in Britain: held (many of them) by men and women we hardly seem to hear from. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say men and women we hardly seem to report — and for a reason. Swashbuckling opinions are not a luxury most of them think they can afford. They’re walking on eggshells. They don’t think it’s easy.

The results of Parris' canvassing are highly informative, if unsurprising: they regard Cameron as an electoral asset and very wary of the economic radicalism being urged on him by his critics. I urge anyone with an interest in the future of British conservatism to read the whole thing. It's a side of the debate we simply haven't heard enough of, and the analogies to American politics should be obvious.