When the Tories start disowning Margaret Thatcher and take to quoting Gandhi, as David Cameron did last week to pep up his party's election campaign, you can tell they are in trouble and desperate. And it is easy to see why.
Three weeks before an election that only a few months ago was theirs to lose the Tories are suddenly looking vulnerable. Despite a minor surge in their poll lead last week on the back of Labour's own goal in the form of an ill-timed announcement to raise the National Insurance contribution, the smart money is still on a hung Parliament.
While there is no doubt that public mood is in favour of a change after 13 years of uninterrupted Labour rule, not enough people are sure that the Tories are the “change” they want. And it is not a question of convincing just a few hundred or thousand voters. What the Tories need in order to win just a simple outright majority is a national swing of nearly seven per cent which means taking away some 117 seats from Labour and the Liberal Democrats — a feat that its own best friends liken to pulling off an electoral coup.
“No Conservative leader since 1945 has pulled off such an electoral coup — Margaret Thatcher scored only a 5.3 per cent swing in 1979. If he repeats Mrs. Thatcher's success, Mr. Cameron will only just lead the biggest party in Parliament,” according to the Daily Telegraph.
The problem is that too many people still have bitter memories of the Thatcher-Major era and despite Mr. Cameron's efforts to take the party into the 21st century, its image as the “nasty party” (exclusivist, homophobic, pro-rich, anti-Europe, anti-immigrant) continues to linger. And, every time he thinks he has succeeded in rebranding it as a progressive and modern party, someone within his own ranks goes off- message reinforcing the perception that Tories will never change. This happened again last week when no less a figure than the shadow home secretary Chris Grayling (the man who would be Britain's Home Secretary in the event of a Tory victory) let off a whiff of homophobia by publicly supporting the owners of a bed-and-breakfast establishment who had refused to give a room to a gay couple in clear breach of equality laws.
It immediately reminded people of the Tories' long history of anti-gay prejudice ; and although an embarrassed leadership quickly stepped in to defuse the row few were convinced that Mr. Grayling's remarks were simply a “gaffe,” Gay rights groups, who have become increasingly vocal of late, were incandescent saying that the episode confirmed what they always suspected: that beneath those shiny new clothes the emperor was naked. There is a significant “pink” vote up for grabs in these elections and Tories are clearly worried that the Grayling episode might prove costly for them. The backlash has already begun. A group of young volunteers who had been campaigning for Tories are now planning to switch support to Labour.
Not surprisingly, an operation “damage limitation” is in full swing. First there were anonymous anti-Grayling briefings suggesting that the boss was extremely angry over his remarks and he may no longer be in line for the Home Secretary's post in a Tory government. And then Mr. Cameron wrote an article in Pink News reiterating his party's “commitment” to gay rights and assuring the gay community that (notwithstanding what Mr. Grayling thought of it) there “will be no going back on equality legislation if the Conservative Party is elected.”
To further mollify them, he threw in a bonus: he promised that his government would go so far as to apply the equality legislation retrospectively so that anyone who had conviction going back to the days when homosexuality was a criminal offence would have their conviction quashed.
“This is a question of justice and it's right that we should change the law and wipe the slate clean,” he declared.
No matter what Mr. Cameron says or does, the truth is that at its core the Tory party remains fundamentally status-quoist and keeps retreating into its old comfort zone (no immigrants, single mothers, or homosexuals allowed). This leaves the “modernising” Mr. Cameron, effectively, a one-man band. If he is really serious about winning the elections then the first thing he will need to do is to tame the “enemy within” and keep his flock on a tight leash at least until the polling day.
Meanwhile, in a further attempt to burnish his ‘new Tory' credentials, he promised to roll back Margaret Thatcher's “divisive” legacy; and then, in a move that must have made Churchill turn in his grave, he summoned Gandhi to the aid of the party. Launching a youth community service, he gushingly recalled what Gandhi once said about community service: “Gandhi put it beautifully, as he did so often: ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.'”
Except that when the Mahatma tried to “lose” himself in the service of his own people, the Tories ridiculed him with Churchill infamously saying that it was “alarming” and “nauseating” to see Gandhi “striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace…to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor.”
So, have the Tories really changed? Or is it the elections?