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By 2005, Conservatives were broadly agreed that if we were to win we needed to appeal to a set of voters variously described as "paternalists", "Blairites", or "progressives". There were subtle-but-important nuances in analysis implied by which of those names on preferred, but for our purposes here we can think of them all as referring to the same group of voters and voter concerns. Let's just use the term "progressives" for now (even though it's my least favourite of the three). The debate was not over whether we needed to appeal to these people / concerns, but how.
In essence, the question was whether we should appeal to them by saying we had changed to be them – that we were ourselves now progressives – or whether we should appeal to them by saying that we would use our methods and energies to address their concerns – "Conservative methods to address progressive concerns" (cf Disraeli's "Tory men and Whig measures").
Much fashionable analysis suggested, and still suggests, that the only way to win votes from these groups is to be like them. The contention is that British General Elections are always won from "the centre" and that the process of "modernising" the Conservative Party had to be one of occupying "the centre".
In my view, the source of this analysis is that most of the best and most insightful political analysts of the past twenty years has come from centre-left thinkers. For, indeed, the Labour Party has almost always won elections by occupying the centre and reaching out from there to its left (the winning strategies of Wilson and Blair), and almost never by reaching out to the centre from the left (the one, debatable, exception being Atlee).
But the thing is that that analysis simply doesn't stack up when applied on the right. Conservatives almost never win from the centre, appealing to the right. The last time this was actually done was in 1959, by Macmillan. Hume lost as a man of the centre in 1964. Heath won as man of the right in 1970, and lost as a man of the centre in 1966 and twice in 1974. Thatcher won reaching from the right to the centre in 1979, 1983 and 1987. Major won, again reaching from the right to the centre in 1992 and lost attempting to be a centrist in 1997.
The one arguable case in my list is 1992, with Major, so I'll dwell on it for a moment. Many people have the impression that Major was a man of the centre in 1992, but I think that's a confusion created by the fact that Major was seen as a little left of 1990-vintage Thatcher. But there was an awful lot of right-wing space between 1990-vintage Thatcher and the centre. John Major, remember, was the candidate favoured by the right in the 1990 leadership election, defeating Heseltine and Hurd, and strongly backed by Thatcher (even to the point of her being accused of being his back-seat driver). His most famous quote of the day was "If it isn't hurting, it isn't working." He was the Chancellor that had kept interest rates at 15% for fourteen months to "take the steam out of the housing market". He won in 1992 off the back of a campaign alleging that Labour would raise taxes in a "double whammy". His position clearly evolved once he took over the leadership, but by 1992 he was, at most, at the centre of the Conservative Party. He was not a centrist with respect to overall public opinion.
But even if one did concede the Major case, that would leave us with one example of a Conservative winning a General Election from the centre in 53 years. Cameron attempted to pitch himself as a centrist, reaching out to the right, in a mirror of Blair, and did not win in 2010.
But with his speech today, Cameron has re-positioned. He said that Conservatism is the means to serve the needs of the poor. He said we would use Conservative methods to meet progressive ends. He said not cutting the deficit would harm the poor. He said setting such excessive taxes on the rich that they relocate to Geneva would not harm them because their taxes would be lower in Geneva, but would harm those that lost their jobs in Britain. He said that it wasn't cruel to ask something of people – it was cruel to ask nothing. He said he was privileged in his schooling and wanted every child in Britain to be so privileged. He said we are on the side of those that want to become rich.
In short, his is speech today was what reaching out to the centre from the right looks like. It was the Conservative Party not pretending to be something it's not, embracing our beliefs and and our methods and telling those in the centre that we shall use our methods to address their concerns, and that we will more effective in that than will our opponents.
This is the pitch we should have had since 2005 – nay, since 1999. If Cameron can keep this up, he will inspire support and praise across the party. And if his government can deliver on such aspirations, it can win General Election but, much more importantly, it can change Britain, just a little, for the better.