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For Britain's Conservatives the Only Way to Comeback is Essex

04/06/2013 15:45 BST | Updated 02/08/2013 10:12 BST
AP

Now everyone agrees on something: the Conservative Party is in disarray. First they posted their worst share of the vote since 1982 in May's local elections, paving the way for a fringe party to outpoll the one in government. Then comments reported from a Cameron aide deeply insulted grassroots supporters, compounding the leadership's already fractured relationship with its party. Finally, the IMF delivered a damning assessment of the government's economic record, raising the possibility of a triple-dip recession.

Ironically, the current situation is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Conservatives. The Party may be in trouble, but the conservative movement in the UK has rarely been stronger. Damaged by an actual record in government, voters are deserting the Liberal Democrats, pushing the combined UK Independence Party-Conservative vote up to 48% compared with Labour's 29%. Four fifths of people say the government's main job is to manage its budget sensibly. Those who want better public services applaud Michael Gove's drive for higher standards in education. But to get the support they need, the government must take an equally radical approach to the European Union and the economy.

David Cameron does not have far to look for inspiration. The Ukip's surge and retrospectives of Margaret Thatcher remind us there is a populist tradition on the right of British politics that wins elections. And it is most ingrained on the right of the country.

The Ukip's biggest gains in May were in Kent, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and West Sussex, as well as Hampshire. 'Essex Man' heralded three national Conservative victories. But now he is tempted by the UKIP. For just as Cromwell's Eastern Association put political power in the hands of the people rather than an unelected elite, the Home Counties now fear control by European politicians.

Southern and eastern England best illustrate the double edged nature of Britain's relationship with Europe. Its cities and ports gained disproportionately from EEC membership as the country's centre of gravity shifted eastward. But Ukip gains there and elsewhere show Britons see economic and political involvement with Europe as separate issues.

Only the Conservative Party can resolve the opposing visions of Europe as a business opportunity rather than a bureaucracy. Labour and the Liberal Democrats would never want to weaken the grasp of Brussels regulation and the Ukip will never be able to by themselves. But the Tory leader can make a convincing case that Britain would keep its influence in the world outside the existing European Union arrangement. When that happens they will see the UKIP's support dry up quicker than a barrel of bitter at its annual conference.

Just as eastern England was home to Britain's earliest international commerce, the region points to an economic comeback today. Heathrow airport is at breaking point, threatening its status as a global hub. Building a third Heathrow runway AND implementing a Thames Estuary Airport (a.k.a. Boris Island) would kick start the business cycle and ensure world class aviation for the rest of the century. Some will say competition between them would be damaging. But the experience of Canary Wharf tells us building a new centre outside the traditional capital greatly enhances London's power, as well as the rest of the country.

The London Olympics, the UK's latest estuarine success, contains an ethos the Conservatives can win with. That is, when Britain is willing to engage with the rest of the world but keeps control at home it can compete on a global level. Without that simple message, the conservative vote will continue to be split between the Tories and the Ukip. Then a leadership contest between David Cameron and Boris Johnson will be as false as the choice between Heathrow and Boris Island. Because Labour will be back in power within two years.