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The Conservative Party was thoroughly rattled by its catastrophic election defeat of 1997, and academics have long been asking why it seemed so incapable of swiftly rectifying the situation in the sort of ruthlessly pragmatic way that had for so long brought the party electoral fortune. Bringing an excellent contribution to the expanding literature on this question, Richard Hayton has produced an astute account of the most recent period of opposition for the Conservative Party, bringing a new depth of focus to the explanation of change that occurred over the period.

Rather than favouring the restrictions of a chronological account, Hayton directs his argument around the key themes of European integration, national identity, social liberalism and economic policy. His findings may not be warmly welcomed at Number 10 (if one were to hope that insightful political science might make an appearance on the Cabinet Room bookshelves), concluding as he does that the neo-liberal inheritance of Thatcherism is still strongly felt in the Cameronite party. Yet Hayton does acknowledge that David Cameron has modernised the party to an extent, reconstructing its image in the eyes of the voter, and performing a nuanced statecraft which his predecessors in opposition failed to do.

Hayton gives an interesting rehabilitation of Iain Duncan Smith, who may, with time, prove to have contributed more to the Conservative Party than was at first thought. He also recognises the more favourable political context in which Cameron was at first operating, with the fall of Tony Blair and onset of the economic crisis, yet he emphasises that this does not provide the whole explanation. Using the strategic relational approach as a theoretical framework, Hayton highlights that agential reading of the environment is paramount, and that William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard all fell short in this regard, and remain largely responsible for the failure of their leadership to renew the party's fortunes. Cameron, conversely, successfully negotiated his environment, working within rather than against the slipstream of Thatcherism to bring a neo-liberal agenda into the contemporary era. Hayton, however, underplays a number of sources for this revival that can be traced to actors operating below the radar and in the pre-Cameron era.

That said, with an argument strongly supported by a deep appreciation of primary policy documents and interviews with key actors, Hayton presents a solid description of a party both changed and not changed, in language that remains accessible to the everyday reader without compromising the theoretical integrity required by the discipline.