Analysis: Blue Book heralds start of a struggle for the Tory soul

The Tory right are looking for a comeback at this year's party conference in Manchester. The diehard Conservatives of the Blue Book might just give it to them.

By Alex Stevenson

If the coalition government falls prematurely, so received wisdom goes, it will be because the junior party's left-leaning grassroots revolt against their broadly centre-right deputy prime minister. That this is a truth universally acknowledged has proved hugely beneficial to the Lib Dems. In the coalition dynamic, where every political decision is weighed up in terms of policy wins for this party or that one, keeping the lefties happy has been paramount in the minds of the coalition's leaders. May's local elections catastrophe for Nick Clegg and co, and the electoral reform defeat which went with it, only served to reinforce this trend.

This has left the politicians on the Tory right feeling somewhat marginalised. They are, to put it bluntly, frustrated. As the party faithful gather in Manchester to assess their progress over the last 12 months, the Conservative party will take stock. Not all of it is entirely happy.

The party’s backbenches and grassroots are feeling somewhat bruised on its key issues. Law and order, attitudes towards Europe and immigration are among the issues on which they're most sensitive to Lib Dem influence. "By delivering a coherent and more moderate voice," Lib Dem chief whip Alistair Carmichael explained to delegates in Birmingham two weeks ago, "we are able to marginalise those voices that would otherwise be pulling the government to the right".

Those voices realise this is the case. They accept that this is the reality of the coalition, but that doesn't mean they like it one little bit. In their angrier moments, perhaps when David Cameron openly laughs at their views in the Commons, they might get frustrated with the prime minister's naturally moderate social instincts. But when cooler heads prevail, many Conservatives realise he's doing what is necessary to keep the coalition together. He's making the best of a bad job.

This is the context for The Blue Book, a new collection of essays ostensibly addressing the question of how to prepare for the next Conservative party manifesto. Contributors include John Redwood, Bill Cash and David Davis, all unshakeable guardians of the unfettered Tory spirit. They are not seeking to present ideas which the entire party will agree with. Instead the aim is to provoke debate – and by doing so remind the party that its identity is subtly different from the agenda of the coalition government.

"I think most people expressing these frustrations also accept the party has its hands tied by this coalition government," admits backbencher John Baron, who has contributed a chapter on foreign policy. He argues a majority Tory government should be looking to give the British people a say on their membership of the European Union, repatriate powers to the UK and question why we're "contributing as much as we are". With considerable understatement, he adds: "Some of us think we could improve policy."

It's tempting to conclude that the real intended impact of the book is against the thoroughly liberal prime minister. Baron is clear his focus is on 2015, but the issues covered by the Blue Book are all live at present. The tempting conclusion is that the Blue Bookers are after nothing less than a destabilisation of the coalition. Suspicions will surely arise that they are trying to rock the boat.

But somehow this doesn't feel quite right. For they accept the fact that the Conservatives didn't get an outright majority. They concede that their marginalisation is therefore a fair reflection of the general election. The Blue Bookers' real concern is in preserving the character of the Conservative party, reminding the world that there is more to being a Tory than what's contained in the coalition agreement. They will, very politely and in measured terms, use the Blue Book to kick up a fuss.

The left of the Lib Dem party has hogged the limelight in the coalition's first phase. Now, as the right of the Tory party reasserts itself, it wants some attention, too.