The parliamentary constituency of Eastleigh, on the southern English coast just opposite the Isle of Wight, is a collection of small towns and villages with such names as Butlocks End, Hamble-le-Rice, Burlesdon and Old Netley, and Hedge End – straight out of the television series Midsomer Murders. It might almost be a archetypal stretch of Old Tory England, which, indeed, it was – regularly returning Tory MPs with majorities ranging from 13,000 to 20,000 – until 1994, when, in a Midsomer-like plot twist, its Tory MP was discovered dead, lying on a kitchen table, wearing ladies’ stockings, with an orange in his mouth and an electric cord around his neck, having seemingly embarked on an experiment in auto-erotic asphyxiation and self-bondage that went wrong. The third-party Liberal Democrats won the seat in a by-election that year and have held it ever since.
Last month, however, Eastleigh’s most recent Liberal Democrat MP, Chris Huhne, a senior cabinet minister in the coalition government of Tories and Liberal Democrats, pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice (he persuaded his wife to claim she was driving his car when police cameras caught it speeding in 2003) and faces a prison sentence. It was an opportunity for the Tories to regain the seat they felt was truly their own.
That opportunity was multiplied tenfold by charges that a former Liberal Democrat electoral chief, Lord Rennard, had applied wandering hands to the legs of aspiring Liberal Democrat women, and that the scandal had been covered up by Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg. There was even loose talk of a “Liberal Democrat casting couch,” which, when we recall that politics is show business for ugly people, is not a topic to think too much about.
The Tories should have romped home. Instead, they came in third behind the successful Liberal Democrat candidate and – still worse – the upstart United Kingdom Independence Party. UKIP’s 28 per cent of the vote was Eastleigh’s big story. Once a party breaks through a certain credibility barrier, it can grow rapidly. Opportunities for UKIP to do so lie ahead in local elections this May, in European elections in May of 2014, and in whatever by-elections occur before May of 2015. Although the party is likely to fall from its current 9-to-12-per-cent showing in national polls, let alone its 28 per cent at Eastleigh, it will win many more votes in the next election than the 3.1 per cent it got in 2010.
The Tories, therefore, face electoral competition on the right for the first time since democracy was introduced. That’s in addition to three other tough challenges. First, the voters in 2015 will be poorer in real terms than they were in 2010, even if the economy grows moderately well between now and then. Second, the electoral system is biased against the Tories: They need a 6-per-cent lead in votes over Labour to break even in seats. Third, there are limits to how the Tories can reverse such trends – especially the loss of votes to UKIP – if the problem is less specific policies than the distrust of conservative voters toward them.
The seeds of this distrust lie in the broad electoral strategy Prime Minister David Cameron pursued upon becoming Tory leader. “Modernization” held that the Tories had lost their appeal to centrist voters by concentrating on such right-wing issues as immigration and Europe. His first step as leader was to downgrade those issues and focus, instead, on such progressive ones as a green energy policy of subsidizing “renewable” energy sources and increasing foreign aid. If this strategy were to convince centrist voters (and the liberal metropolitan media such as The Guardian and the BBC), however, the Cameron Tories believed that their party must advertise contempt for its reactionary supporters. On same-sex marriage, in particular, they did just that. The results were seen at Eastleigh.
This will be hard to reverse. Cameronism has made the Tories a directionless party. National membership has halved. Those remaining don’t know what to think except that something has gone terribly wrong since Margaret Thatcher. Loyalist MPs are rendered inert on cultural issues, such as the “equalities agenda,” by the strategy of appeasing metropolitan liberals. Confined within coalition limits on spending and taxes, they end up arguing for higher taxes on property that hit their bedrock support among savers and homeowners.
They are dumb on health scandals that have killed more than a thousand people because the strategy demands absolute fidelity to the National Health Service. Ministers threaten resistance to European directives but then back down, as on bankers’ bonuses this week, even when they could veto them. And if they wish to adopt bolder policies, Liberal Democrats in the coalition stop them.
Cameronism is at an impasse. One escape might be to provoke a Tory split and lead loyalists into an electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats, ultimately forming a Centre Party. But if that were Mr. Cameron’s intention, it seems beyond his reach. He carried just over a third of Tory MPs with him on gay marriage. A merger with the Liberal Democrats would provoke a larger rebellion. And most Liberal Democrats, regarding the Tories as the traditional enemy, would reject it, too.
That leaves the Prime Minister in a lonely place. Mr. Cameron never wears ladies’ stockings, uses an electric cord only to turn on the light, and believes that the sole purpose of oranges is as part of a healthy diet. That said, Cameronism increasingly resembles an experiment in auto-erotic asphyxiation and self-bondage.
And it’s going wrong.
John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of the National Review and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.