Last year’s UK general election was a tale of two women. One, Prime Minister Theresa May, badly misread the voters and led her party into an unnecessary and mismanaged debacle. The other, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, understood her opportunities perfectly – and led the Conservatives to their best showing in Scotland since 1983. One year on, Davidson still gets it, while May still doesn’t.
The trouble with Theresa is that she failed – and fails still – to understand what voters want or care deeply about. She could have campaigned as a change agent, someone who would – through Brexit and all those reforms to capitalism put forward in her first conference speech as leader – make Britain work for all. But instead, she fixated on Brexit, making the election a de facto second bite at the referendum apple.
May’s tin ear cost her the majority. In 17 of the 33 seats the Tories lost in the election, Remain had won. In another eight, Leave won by only a narrow margin, with less than 55% of the vote. But her inability to grasp that Brexit was a call for change, not simply an opinion on the European Union, meant she failed to gain enough support in hard-pressed working-class regions to make up for these losses.1
Conservatives picked up only six seats from Labour in England and Wales. Leave won each of these seats handily with between 59% and 71% of the vote. The Tories fell short in ten other seats that also heavily backed Leave, and failed to make sufficient gains in other Leave super-majority seats to even come close.
Contrast this with Ruth Davidson. She, too, had to adapt to the passions that a referendum had wrought – albeit a referendum of a different stripe. But she correctly saw that the Tories could strip votes away from the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party by painting her party as a responsible, eminently Scottish, pro-Union party. Her success meant that the election results in Scotland did not reflect the Brexit vote, but instead turned almost completely on the 2014 independence referendum.
The independence referendum failed, and in 11 of the 12 seats Davidson’s Scottish Tories gained from the SNP, 55% or more of the electorate voted against independence. The SNP lost a further six seats to Labour or the Liberal Democrats in similar areas, and only narrowly beat the Tories in five other seats that voted heavily against independence.
Unsurprisingly, the SNP won 24 of the 28 seats where more than 45% of voters had supported independence, and they won most of the others where independence fared less well only because unionist votes were split between at least two other parties. The 2017 vote for representatives in Westminster was directly related to whether the voter thought anyone should be going there in the first place.
The Prime Minister has struggled in the year since the country last went to the polls. Her party remains split between a majority that wants to leave the EU and a vocal and sizeable minority that wants to remain. The logical thing in such circumstances is to find a middle ground, something neither prefers but both will accept under the circumstances. She has failed to find this. Or even to feign that she is looking for it. And so the continued intra-party war over Brexit continues unabated.
May’s task, though, has been hampered by the Conservative’s long history as a class-based party. For generations they were the party of the best-educated and wealthiest. As late as 1992, the Tories received over half the vote of these ABC1 voters.2
But Tony Blair’s New Labour put an end to that and the Conservative share of the upper-class vote dropped in 1997 to only 39%. Nor has it returned in subsequent elections, even those fought by the self-described moderniser – and old Etonian – David Cameron.
In 2015, Cameron’s Tories only managed to win about 43% of these voters, gaining their majority only because of tactical voting in key marginal constituencies. Nonetheless, 25 years of failure has not stopped many Tory Remainers, like Lord Andrew Cooper, from arguing for a policy towards Brexit and the economy that is heavily titled towards the wealthy.
In fact, May’s Conservative Party is the only Tory Party since the Second World War to be evenly balanced in its support among the social classes. According to the polling firm Ipsos-MORI, her Tories received 47% of the upper-class AB vote and 44% of the middle-class C1 vote. They also received a record high 45% of the lower-middle class C2 vote – higher even than Margaret Thatcher achieved in her three landslide elections.
The Tories also received a record-high 38% of the working-class and poor DE vote. The trouble was, even these record high percentages weren’t enough to translate into seats because of the Tories’ historic weakness in those areas.
May needed to be more radical and comprehensive in her platform to drive support among the less-advantaged, while simultaneously attracting traditional upper-class voters with either a concession on Brexit or other reforms that met their priorities.
Her difficulties in creating a modern version of One Nation Conservatism have left some party activists hungering for the woman who won, Ms Davidson. This is not to suggest that her success in Scotland is transferrable to the South. Scottish opinion polls suggest she continues to appeal to Scots who put their faith in her Tories last year, but she has yet to show that she can move beyond that appeal to other unionist voters.
Nor would it be easy for her to do so. Scotland voted Remain by a large margin: even most Conservative-held seats voted to stay in the EU. Taking on a national leadership role while Brexit remains an open wound would require Davidson to demonstrate significant support for Brexit, something that would likely imperil the Scottish Conservative Party upon whose new-found strength the Westminster party relies. Davidson wisely is refusing to drink from this poisoned chalice, knowing that any move to the South requires the passage of time and the entrenchment of Tory gains in the North.
May’s future, and perhaps the Conservative Party’s, rests not on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations but on what will happen next. Britain, like most other developed, Western nations, is undergoing a period of rapid, wrenching change. May and her party ought to lead that change, to make Britain’s marketplace one that works for all of its citizens. Failure to adopt this approach will likely leave voters looking for a man with a plan. And Jeremy Corbyn has been waiting for that moment all of his life.