A decade into his leadership has David Cameron fundamentally changed the Conservative Party, or has he simply re-framed Thatcherism for the 21st century? Libby McEnhill investigates.

David Cameron has been leader of the Conservative Party for a decade. In that time, he has taken the Party from the wilderness of opposition and three lost general elections, into government first in Coalition with the Liberal Democrats and now, in a development that confounded pollsters and commentators, as leader of the first single-party Conservative government in almost 20 years.

Cameron won the leadership on a platform of modernisation and detoxification: the need for the Conservative Party, in some way, to move away from its recent, Thatcherite past and reach out to voters lost to Labour in 1997 as a means of achieving electoral recovery. At the ballot box, Cameron's leadership can undoubtedly be judged a success. However, in 2005, Cameron argued that in order to alter perceptions of the Conservatives as the ‘nasty party’, the Party needed to embody ‘fundamental change’, not ‘some slick rebranding exercise’. Ten years on, the extent of substantive ideological change that Cameron's leadership has effected is much less clear.

In opposition, the Conservatives began to develop ideas and policy around areas that they had hitherto rather neglected, most notably social policy. In government, the Coalition pushed through extensive reforms driven by both these ideas and the need to cut public spending. The Conservative Party under Cameron has certainly formulated a more developed approach to such issues than was visible under Thatcher, but this does not necessarily indicate an ideological shift: what we might instead be seeing is the use of different instruments and strategies to reach similar Thatcherite aims, particularly when it comes to the role and size of the state. On the other hand, since 2010 there have been some policy developments that do seem to suggest a shift: notably same-sex marriage legislation in 2013 and the new ‘Living Wage’ in 2015. Through examining these policies and the ideas surrounding them, we can analyse whether Cameron has moved the Conservative Party away from Thatcherism, conclusively shifting its centre of gravity towards a more liberal conservatism, and whether he actually sought to do so at all.


2005–2010: The Conservatives in Opposition

A fundamental rethink of the Conservative approach to the economy was never likely to be a feature of Conservative modernisation. Conservatives continued to see Thatcher's economic interventions as one of her greatest successes. Cameron himself claimed that New Labour's adoption and continuation of parts of the Thatcherite legacy was evidence of Conservative victory in the ‘battle of ideas’; it would then have been a strange move to seek to dispense with these entirely.

On social policy, Cameron's Conservatives had more to say and do. The perception was that this had been under-explored under Thatcher, due to an overwhelming focus on the economy, and where it had been addressed the Conservatives had often been perceived indifferent or actively hostile towards public services, unconcerned about poverty and disadvantage, and unable to articulate a resonant narrative of ‘society’. Many Conservatives would agree that Thatcher's infamous claim that there was ‘no such thing as society’ had been misconstrued, but it had nonetheless come to encapsulate Conservative attitudes towards social policy and society for many voters.

On winning the leadership, Cameron convened six policy review groups, four of which (social justice, quality of life, public services and global poverty) were concerned with non-traditionally Conservative policy areas (see figure 1). In contrast, just one (economic development) was tasked with looking at the Conservative approach to the economy. Thatcherite MP John Redwood led this group: its recommendations around issues such as tax cuts were played down by the leadership, and the relatively small role afforded to it in the policy review process seems to have been an early indicator that a fundamental rethink on economics was unlikely. The recommendations from the other groups formed an important and prominent part of the Conservative policy agenda. The social justice report, led by Iain Duncan Smith, was particularly influential. The recommendations of this report contributed to the development of central theme of the Conservatives' 2010 election campaign: the ‘Big Society’, in which voluntary and community organisations would be empowered (and financed) to take on responsibility for delivering services that were currently largely the preserve of the central state.

 Figure 1. Policy review groups: developing ‘Cameronite’ policies 
(Click to enlarge) 

Figure 2. Issues facing Britain, February 2015
Source: Ipsos MORI (2015c) Ipsos MORI issues index, February 2015, available from: https://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/issues-index-topline-feb-2015.pdf,
(Click to enlarge) 


New Issues, Same Old Solutions? Cameron in Government

Cameron has argued, contra-Thatcher, that there ‘is such a thing as society’: however, ‘it's just not the same thing as the state’. What is interesting about this approach is that while the issues that the Conservative Party concerns itself with appear to have changed markedly, seemingly at least partly in response to New Labour's agenda, the solutions advocated largely fit within Thatcherite-influenced, ‘rolling back the state’ parameters. If the main difference between Thatcherite Conservatives and their ‘One Nation’ predecessors was in their attitude towards the interventionist state, then this gives a clear indication of where Cameron's leadership has taken the Conservatives.

The Conservative leadership under Cameron has shied away from some of the more aggressive anti-state rhetoric of Thatcherism, which Vernon Bogdanor summarises as giving ‘the impression that public services were inherently second class, and that most people should aspire to opt out of using them’. In Coalition, the Conservatives occupied all of the main offices of state with attendant consequences for the amount of power that they were able to exercise, and demonstrated a preference for organisations outside the state in delivering services, seeking to enhance and institutionalise their role. The new Conservative government seems set to continue down a similar trajectory. This will have major consequences for the long-term size and shape of the British state. Moreover, despite a reluctance to describe its policies as ‘ideological’, Cameron has stated his belief that this is desirable for economic and social prosperity. In 2013, he told his audience at the Lord Mayor's Banquet that the task of his government was to ‘build a leaner, more efficient state […] Not just now, but permanently’.


Implementing ‘Modernised’ Conservatism: Health, Education and Social Security

Given the overarching concern with social policy, it is primarily in the areas of health, education and social security that we would expect to see the embodiment of Cameronite ‘modernisation’. Health reform has been somewhat halting, following the Health and Social Care Act (2012): this might be attributed to both the leadership's sensitivity towards the need to appear positive about public services, and the great deal of public affection for the NHS. In 2015, for example, ‘the NHS’ was named as the most important issue facing Britain by voters and there is little appetite for large-scale reform. On education, reform has been more ambitious and thoroughgoing: as Education Minister Michael Gove greatly accelerated Labour's academies policy, allowing private and charitable organisations and charities to set up and run state schools through the free schools programme.

However, it is in welfare and social security that illustrations of Conservative thinking on the state-society relationship and the proper role of the state are most in evidence. The DWP has experienced very large budget cuts and several of its programmes have undergone significant reforms. The scale of change in this area is enabled by lack of wider affection towards the welfare system and benefit claimants themselves, including concerns over the effects of benefit spending, allowing the Conservatives a freer hand while also meeting the objective of reducing spending (figure 3).

As with education and (to a lesser extent) health, what we see in this area is a determination to reduce the direct responsibilities and level of control exercised by the central state. In relation to service provision, there has been a much greater attempt under Cameron than under Thatcher to put in place a framework for actively encouraging and incorporating alternative providers. For example, a central component of the flagship Work Programme is the opportunity for small voluntary and community organisations to become involved in service delivery, justified through the argument that they are better placed to meet the needs of local users (in practice, however, the prime contractors are mainly private businesses). This is similar to the justification for and role played by alternative providers in the academies programme. There is, therefore, a recognition that Conservatives cannot take an entirely ‘hands off’ approach to social policy issues: nonetheless, the direction of travel is towards a smaller, less prescriptive state.

The continued relevance of Thatcherite perspectives is also evident in the aspects of social security policy that focus on individual claimants. The Coalition and Conservative reform programme has been justified in terms of two objectives: saving money, and curbing ‘welfare dependency’. Here the emphasis is on reducing the number of people who claim state benefits, using a ‘carrot and stick’ approach. Both rhetorically and ideologically, this objective draws on the New Right idea that an expansive state fosters irresponsibility. People will not support themselves, so the argument goes, if the state does it for them. Helpfully for the Conservative case, this links into the second objective of saving money, via the argument that high welfare spending is a cause rather than a solution for problems associated with poverty, inequality and worklessness.


Outliers: Same-Sex Marriage and the National Living Wage

However, some policies implemented since 2010 do not fit within this framework. The arrival of same-sex marriage on the legislative agenda in 2013 came as a surprise, given that it had not been in either the Liberal Democrat or Conservative manifesto. This could be taken to indicate a shift towards social liberal attitudes, rather than the social conservatism and moral authoritarianism that characterised Thatcherism. Cameron argued strongly that there was a case for this on the grounds of both equality (a liberal perspective) and of strengthening the family, a traditional Conservative concern, advocating a blended liberal conservative position. This signalled Cameron's determination to convey an impression of a party that had undergone real change, and was comfortable with modern life. Yet Cameron's arguments in favour of the bill were not ones that his MPs (or indeed the wider Conservative Party) found convincing: more Conservatives voted against or abstained on the bill than voted for it, and it passed due to overwhelming support from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Same-sex marriage legislation could, potentially, have been an illustrative of real change in social attitudes within the parliamentary Conservative Party. Instead, it suggested that the balance of opinion was against Cameron and fellow ‘liberal’ Tories.

The announcement in June 2015 that the Conservatives would implement a ‘National Living Wage’ (in reality, a large increase to the Minimum Wage) not only wrong-footed the Labour Party, but also offered an intriguing example of a Conservative Party that has been rhetorically hostile to state intervention in business, using the state in quite the opposite way. This is a surprising move, and one that does not entirely cohere with other Conservative perspectives. Ultimately it was introduced alongside a raft of further cuts to in- and out-of-work benefits. Without such a measure, the political costs of being seen to take money from working people without giving any recompense may simply have been too high and may yet prove to be so, given the on-going controversy over tax credit cuts. Given concerns amongst small businesses and in some sectors that the ‘living wage’ may be unaffordable, it will be interesting to follow Conservative attitudes towards this policy in the months and years to come.


How Enduring is ‘Cameronism’?

As Tim Heppell has shown, the wider Parliamentary Conservative Party remains overwhelmingly Thatcherite (economically ‘dry’ and socially conservative). We would assume, given the platform of modernisation on which Cameron was elected, that his task was to wrestle the Party away from this legacy. The reforms discussed here overwhelmingly do not move away from this framework, with some important but not entirely successful exceptions. It is worth noting that much of the public sector and social policy reform agenda built on policies introduced by New Labour, including those around decentralisation in education, marketisation in health, and towards greater diversity and conditionality in social security provision. Clearly, there was already much policy in existence that Conservative modernisers and traditionalists alike might be able to find common ground on, and the public sector reforms in particular have been widely supported across the Party. Given the current character of the Party and the lack of enthusiasm or motivation for reassessing economic strategy, we should question whether it was realistic in the first instance to expect modernisation to result in a substantive shift in the Conservative Party's ideological centre of gravity. Moreover, where this has been attempted, the Party appears unconvinced.

The move into Coalition and corresponding identification of the need to drastically reduce public spending, is often identified as having enabled the Conservatives to take a more radical action approach to the size of the state than would otherwise have been possible. If the early opposition years under Cameron are taken as a starting point then this claim holds some water. The scale of retrenchment, particularly in social security, was not anticipated – especially since in 2007 the Conservatives pledged to match Labour's spending for two years, should they win an election. In government, on the ‘big questions’ over the size and role of the state, Cameron's party has largely remained safely within the framework of Thatcherite ideas. Moreover, the prospect of exploring new policy approaches within this, such as funding voluntary organisations to deliver services, has been reduced due to the imperative of cutting spending. So far, Cameron's tenure as leader can be read not as radical, but as a retreat into an ideological comfort zone.

Further Reading

  • Beech, M. (2015) ‘The ideology of the Coalition: more Liberal than Conservative’, In M. Beech and S. Lee (eds.), The Conservative-Liberal Coalition: examining the Cameron-Clegg Government, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Hayton, R. and McEnhill, L. (2015) ‘Cameron's Conservative Party, social liberalism and social justice’, British Politics10 (2), pp.114130.
  • McEnhill, L. (2015) ‘Unity and distinctiveness in Coalition welfare policy: Lessons for junior partners,’ Political Quarterly86 (1), pp.101109.