UK Politics

End-of-year review: The Conservatives

David Cameron on a visit to a construction services firm in October
Image caption The upturn in the economy has given David Cameron a boost but some MPs are worried that the benefits of the recovery are not being felt

2013 was the year that the Conservative Party said goodbye to its most influential modern leader and the economy finally started to show signs of turning the corner.

A shrinking economy in the final three months of 2012 meant that the Conservatives faced the prospect of a triple dip recession at the start of the year.

Not only was that avoided but growth has steadily gained momentum, culminating in December's Autumn Statement where the chancellor was able to announce that the official growth forecasts for 2013 had more than doubled.

The former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard, now Lord Howard, acknowledges that there are still challenges ahead on the economy.

"On the whole it's been a good year," he says.

"I don't want to underestimate the difficulties that still face us. We've seen the deficit coming down, we've seen economic recovery gathering pace and we're making a good deal of progress".

'Jury out'

But despite the improving picture, there has been disquiet that the party has allowed Labour to steal a march on the cost of living debate, particularly on energy bills.

Former Education Minister Tim Loughton has concerns not everyone is reaping the benefits of a growing economy:

"We've seen some high points and the growth figures are looking very encouraging," he says.

"[But] has it actually trickled down to our constituents' pockets and I think the jury is still out on that one. Are we all sharing in this growth?"

Maintaining growth and delivering the deficit reduction plan will no doubt be the Tories' main preoccupation of 2014, but David Cameron still has problems with discipline within the parliamentary party.

A free vote on gay marriage saw 136 Conservative MPs oppose the legislation and David Cameron also saw his authority severely damaged when thirty of his own backbenchers ignored the whip and deprived him of the mandate to take an active part in operations in Syria.

'On the defensive'

For Tim Loughton such issues are a source of frustration, which he blames on the Conservative leadership:

Image caption The Conservatives were divided over same-sex marriage

"We don't need some of these self-bowled "googlies" like Syria and gay marriage, which turn us on the defensive and we're arguing amongst ourselves".

Europe remains a deeply divisive issue and the prime minister has tried to quell the Eurosceptic arm of the party by offering an 'in/out' referendum on Britain's EU membership, to be held by the end of 2017.

But even if it bought him a bit of peace and quiet within the party it seemingly failed to neutralise the threat from the UK Independence party (UKIP) as the Tories slumped to third place in the Eastleigh by-election.

Triggered by the resignation of the Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne, the Conservatives were hoping to convert their tougher talk on EU migration into votes by regaining the Hampshire seat they had lost in a 1994 by-election.

UKIP threat

Instead, UKIP recorded their best ever Westminster election performance and brought humiliation to the Conservative candidate, in the process triggering a debate within the party about how to deal with their rivals.

Tim Loughton believes UKIP are here to stay.

"I don't write them off as a protest party," he argues. "The Conservative leadership were complacent about taking UKIP seriously. I saw it in my constituency, where we had weak Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition, it was UKIP that were making all the running. That is not a flash in the pan."

The scale of the UKIP threat will be tested in May's European elections. Many Conservatives are assuming they will trail behind Nigel Farage's party.

How the Conservatives respond to the threat and woo back disillusioned voters will be a key challenge for next year.

In years to come, most of these issues will likely pale into insignificance as 2013 will be remembered for the death of Margaret Thatcher.

She may have deeply divided public opinion but despite her death many in the Conservative Party believe her legacy lives on.

"She transformed the country and I think we're still benefiting enormously from the reforms that her government put in place," says Lord Howard.

Whether the Conservatives can step out of Baroness Thatcher's shadow and achieve the outright majority the party ultimately craves at the general election is a huge challenge - especially as incumbent governments rarely manage to increase their share of the vote.

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