What ideological divisions have there been in the Conservative Party?
Although the Conservative Party has traditionally been strongly controlled from above, especially by the Leader there have still been internal differences, which from time to time lead to serious conflicts. During the early part of Thatcher’s period as Prime Minister there were differences between the ‘Wets’, who saw keeping unemployment low as the priority and wanted the continuation of One Nation social policies and accommodation with the trade unions, and the ‘Drys’, close to Thatcher, who wanted strongly free market economic policy and a reduction in public expenditure and the role of the State. This battle was won by the Thatcherites and the Conservative Party has moved to the right on economic and welfare policy. During John Major’s period a conflict developed over whether to accept greater European Union integration, which almost brought the Government down when a small group of Conservative MPs refused to support the Government over the Maastricht Treaty. The main divisions now are:-
a) Between social liberals and social conservatives. Before Cameron, Conservative leaders had taken a conservative stance against New Labour’s legislation removing Section 28, put in place during the Thatcher Premiership, which made it difficult for schools to deal with issues related to homosexuality, adoption by gay couples and making civil partnerships between people of the same sex possible. Cameron continued to emphasise the importance of stable families for society but wanted to remove discrimination against same sex couples forming a stable relationship. As Coalition Prime Minister, he introduced legislation to make gay marriage possible but 136 Conservative MPs voted against, on a free vote.
b) The divisions over gay issues were part of a broader conflict between Modernisers and Traditionalists. When he became Leader, after the Conservatives had lost three elections, Cameron wanted to change the image of the Party to one that was not opposed to the changes that had been taking place in society such as the greater role of women in positions of power, an openly gay population, an increase in single parents and an increase in the ethnic minority population. He also wanted to take up new issues that Conservatives had been seen to ignore such as global warming and gain the support of public sector workers by stressing the importance of public services. His adviser, Steve Hilton, talked about the need for a bottom up society rather than one controlled from Central Government. The 2020 Group of Conservative MPs , many of them new in 2010, supported modernisation and the pursuit of new ideas, and the election in 2015 of candidates who had been on Cameron’s A list, designed to produce a more diverse Parliamentary Party, added to the number of Conservative MPs ready to accept change in society.
Modernisation was opposed by those Conservative MPs who held that abandoning the Party’s support for traditional values and traditional institutions would alienate its core voters and lose an important part of what had been Mrs Thatcher’s appeal to the electorate. In 2010 they were largely in control of the backbench 1922 Committee. The Conservative Party had begun to rapidly lose members and was threatened by the rise of UKIP, which did appeal to traditional values. Although Cameron held to social liberalism and support for female equality and an end to discrimination against ethnic minority groups, he began to retreat from his support of environmentalism in the face of hostility from Conservative MPs to wind farms and the cost of measures to protect the environment. The decision to give priority to cutting the deficit meant that public services were reduced. An emphasis on the problems of radical Islam alienated the Muslim population.
c) The deepest division in the Conservative Party is over Europe. There is now only a group of about 20 Conservative MPs who are pro-EU and the last major figure among these, Kenneth Clarke, is no longer a Government Minister. There is a group of about 30 MPs who want to leave the EU, no matter how the EU changes, and some were even suggesting an electoral pact with UKIP before the general election. The largest group of over 150 MPs is the Fresh Start Group which supported the idea of renegotiation of terms and wanted to remove EU regulation in the areas of justice, social policy and foreign policy. Since the 2015 general election, a Conservatives for Britain group has been set up by Stephen Baker MP, with over 50 MPs, who are more hardline on the renegotiations and want a major shift of sovereignty back from the EU to Britain. They are ready to argue for leaving the EU if renegotiations do not achieve this and they have support from two Cabinet Ministers, Michael Gove and Philip Hammond. Pressure from Eurosceptic Conservatives led Cameron to commit to an in-out referendum on EU membership. The biggest problem for Cameron is how whether he can gain in negotiations with other EU leaders and, if this is not the case, there is every prospect of the Conservative Party being divided over which way they will recommend people to vote in the EU referendum.