Conservative party

The Conservatives have exhibited their most impressive historical quality over the last five years: the capacity for change. But the demands of government mean their weaknesses are also becoming increasingly prominent.

By Ian Dunt

It's the oldest political party in the world for the simple reason that it adapts.

And that particular trait of the Conservative party, an attribute which saw it survive the introduction of the popular vote, Irish home rule and women's suffrage, has been evident again since the party lost the 2005 general election.

Michael Howard, the man famously derided for having "something of the night about him" by Ann Widdecombe, stepped down as leader after the loss. He had every reason to feel relaxed about his defeat. He had not managed to turn things around, but he had prevented Labour gaining any new seats and reduced Tony Blair's overall majority to 66.

David Cameron, who beat David Davis, Liam Fox and Ken Clarke to become leader after a barn-storming speech to the Tory party conference, had been head of policy coordination during the 2005 campaign. It had been a firmly right-wing appeal to the country, with the infamous tag line 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?' typifying its approach to issues like crime and immigration.

But once Cameron emerged as leader he adopted a different tack altogether. It didn't matter that it's still not clear whether he had been forced to cloak his real politics in 2005 or if his PR background allowed him to grasp whatever he felt the public mood was at any given moment. A new, social democratic Conservative party was born. Rhetorically, it was one of the most revolutionary changes the party had ever experienced.

There were, at the beginning, several fluffs. The pictures of Cameron cycling to work trailed by a car containing his papers came to symbolise to its more critical opponents the shallow nature of the party's reform. The photo opportunity with the huskies threatened to descend into farce, as many sceptical observers branded it a blatant PR exercise. But for others, the avalanche of surprising Conservative photo shoots and talk of social justice became proof that voting Conservative was not necessarily a sign of a cold heart.

Former leader Iain Duncan Smith became the party's social justice champion, churning out policy proposals from the Centre for Social Justice. David Davis proved a highly effective and liberal shadow home secretary, although his frontline career was cut short dramatically when he triggered a by-election on the issue of 42-day detention. Sayeeda Warsi was made community cohesion secretary, and instantly won the accolade of the most powerful Muslim woman in Britain. Two gay men were elevated to the shadow Cabinet: Alan Duncan and Nick Herbert. Cameron apologised for his party's history when it came to gay rights, and for voting to keep Section 28, Margaret Thatcher's hated educational law. He also introduced all-women short lists. By the time of the Conservative conference in 2009, he won a standing ovation for a diatribe against Labour's efforts to help the poor, and it appeared as if he had finally decontaminated the Tory brand.

But had the party changed so much? Many commentators were unsure. Some of the party's policies were cloaked in progressive rhetoric but contained little substantive policy proposals when compared to the media presentation they were wrapped in. On Europe, Cameron planted his flag firmly on the right: vowing to leave the centre-right European People's party (EPP) due to its federalist beliefs and forming a new group, the European Conservatives and Reformists Group. It was immediately branded a fringe group by pro-Europeans and questions were raised about the character of the minor parties he had convinced to join, with accusations of Nazi support and homophobia gaining considerable political traction.

Other issues which would attract the party faithful were taken up but given a progressive sheen. Efforts to recognise marriage in the tax system, for instance, were justified not on moral grounds but as an effort to foster social justice. It was in this kind of area – where Cameron argued for Tory means to attain progressive ends – that his rebranding was most effective.

After the formation of the coalition government in 2010 the stresses and strains of the Conservative party began to emerge. Policy disputes with the Liberal Democrats put the right wing of the party at odds with much of the coalition's programme, as it was easier for the moderating influences to gain sway in a bid to win Lib Dem support. The first 12 months saw a remarkable degree of unity, as both parties sought to present a united front to the public in terms of tackling the deficit. Many disputes were deferred: the enormous row over the pace and extent of reforms to the NHS set up a classic ideological difference over the role of competition in public services. Further clashes over the most divisive issue for the Conservative party of all, Europe, were viewed as being delayed rather than dodged. By adapting to the demands of the coalition, it's those right-leaning backbenchers who look set to be the biggest obstacle to the party's internal harmony in the years to 2015.