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Why Tories Miss John Major

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Those of us on the left who were sceptical of the coalition must concede at least one thing: they are certainly efficient. It took New Labour a good decade or more to devolve into all-consuming, omnishambolic panic over their leadership. This lot have managed it in barely two. The agonies of the Liberal Democrats are an essay in themselves, but the senior partners are now just as restive. Never completely at home with Cameron's brand of brand-conscious Toryism, the grassroots are displaying telling signs of buyer's remorse.

Just take a look at ConservativeHome, the party's primary online forum and Rosetta stone for Tory-watchers. Executive Editor Paul Goodman, after spinning a queasily explicit metaphor comparing the coalition to a civil partnership, states the case baldly under the heading "David Cameron's leadership is now at risk":

The non-recovery. The budget (and other) U-turns. The Eurozone crisis. The absence of a big growth plan. The creakiness of the Number 10 machine. The resurgence of Miliband. The persistence of UKIP. The presence of Boris.

A similar litany may be elicited from any Conservative politico with very little prodding. Goodman, of course, is a respectable, well-scrubbed public face; the rank and file are less polite. Here is a representative sample of comments on his blog post, each with dozens of upvotes:

The writing has been on the wall for many months as far as dave and his dwindling gang are concerned so this is more history than news.dave is electoral toast-let's get over it and move on.

Gosh - that's made my day. Perhaps he should have really attempted to win the last General Election, instead of shafting the Conservative Party by aiming for a coalition with the LibDems.

Well Cameron antagonised every section of the Conservative party he could, the MP's, the Activists, and the voters, believing he could ignore them, if not jettison them, in favour of his new found friends. Now he finds his new found Libdem friends are rapidly padding away from the shore in a huff and Cameron and the Canmeroons are stranded in the middle with no friends on the shore to help him, and about to take a big dunk in the drink.

And so on. This is the basic tenor of much Conservative discourse, these days. On ConHome's "Majority Conservatism" page, the stalwart Tim Montgomerie recently canvassed his readers on "23 ideas to win the next election". The results read like the most desperate 4am whisky-and-nicotine brainstorming session ever witnessed at CCHQ. Drop gay marriage! Cut foreign aid! Attack Miliband! Something! Anything! Meanwhile, Boris is squeezing into his push-up bra and parading provocatively past like the saucy secretary in a '70s sex comedy leading a married man astray. To this amused outsider, however, the strangest manifestation of Tory angst is a modest-but-noticeable surge in nostalgia for the leadership of Sir John Major.

Surely not, say my imaginary Greek chorus (every writer should have one). After all, the man is chiefly remembered for two things: dividing his party bitterly over Europe, then leading it to a historic defeat in 1997. I was ten years old that year and remember vividly the enormous party my mother hosted to celebrate Labour's victory. To my childish eyes, Major was the old world passing away. Grey, mediocre; weak, weak, weak.

Nevertheless, as I grew older, the cloying superficiality of the Blair outfit would occasionally make me long for, as the old joke goes, the man who ran away from the circus to become an accountant. I'm certainly not alone in this. Try as they might, Labour supporters could never find it in their hearts to hate John Major, which is why he was such an inspired choice as successor to Thatcher. His achievements in office now too look better than ever. Kicking off the Northern Ireland peace process, leaving behind a booming economy, starting the National Lottery... this last in particular is now being widely praised as a key contributor to Britain's startling Olympic success and has returned his name to the headlines.

"Should we re-evaluate John Major? This PM launched N. Ireland peace process and created lottery which put £1.5bn into sport & helped win gold", tweeted right-leaning journalist and broadcaster David Wooding. The "right man to build on our Olympics success", says columnist Bruce Anderson. In April, as the political class took the 20th anniversary of the 1992 General Election as an opportunity to wallow in nostalgia, the latter described Major's ill-treatment at the hands of his MPs as "the most unworthy, the most shameful, period in Tory history".

Tim Montgomerie, a man with one eye always on the Swingometer, looked back in a piece headlined "How did John Major win 14,093,007 votes?". Here was the true source of Cameron discontent laid bare. The bargain all reforming party leaders make with their followers goes like this: "you swallow the compromises I make with public opinion and I deliver you a majority". Tony Blair delivered on that bargain three times, which is why Labour, for all their grumbling, kept him in place for over a decade. Cameron has not. Once Britain's most successful electoral machine, Tories now confront the stark reality that a parliamentary majority has eluded them for 20 years.

How does Montgomerie answer his own question? He begins by gallantly noting that Major was highly fortunate in his enemies, especially Neil Kinnock. The next point relates to that universal panacea for all Tory ills, lower taxes. The third concerns the party chairman, a soporific dispute for all but the most tweedy of political nerds (that's how I know about it). Only with the fourth and last point, I believe, does he truly get to the heart of the matter. As with so many British questions, today as much as ever, the answer lies in class:

Here was a Tory leader who had come from humble origins to become leader of the Conservative Party ... In 1992 John Major got on his famous soapbox and presented himself as a man of the people who understood the pressures on ordinary families and understood that a recession-struck nation simply couldn't afford Labour.

Leaving to one side the party-political boilerplate at the end, this strikes me as obviously true and also points to a fundamental flaw in the Cameron project.

Lefties, as a rule, tend to claim that the Conservative party is and always has been a party of and for the very rich. "Same old Tories", we snort, sinking into the toff-bashing of old like a warm bath, top hats and monocles optional. In truth, the Cameron-Osborne-Johnson ascendancy represents not a continuation of aristocratic rule, rather a restoration. From Edward Heath through to Michael Howard, a period of over 40 years, the Conservatives were led by tribunes of the aspirational working and middle classes; what they themselves like to call the "strivers".

This gave the party the crucial advantage of seeming to embody what they preached. "I grew up in Brixton and went to a grammar school", Major could claim, "and now I run the country and want to give you a hand up". Speaking as a Labour voter, this was the best face of Conservatism, a creed that spoke to the masses in a way most socialists can only dream of. Cameron and Osborne would, naturally, also claim to be on the side of the strivers. They may even be telling the truth, but these are men who have never faced the threat of financial disaster. Indeed, they have hardly faced any serious adversity as most of us know it. If I'm a small tradesman struggling to see further than the next bill, why should I believe them?

To dismiss Cameron for his social background, I should stress, would be as grossly unfair as if he were a miner's son. His desire to make Britain a better place is patently sincere, as is his concern for the less fortunate (his policies are another matter). This is a problem of perception, but in politics, perception matters. The inimitable Nadine Dorries MP, Tory backbencher and aspirant to the title "Britain's Sarah Palin", has already openly attacked the PM and Chancellor as "arrogant posh boys". Without swift action, the Conservatives may soon find the rest of the country agreeing with her.