But the correct answer, according to Ms May, was ‘the nasty party’. The Tories, she insisted were unrepentant, narrowly based, just plain unattractive. Her words, not mine.
David Cameron was supposed to be the antidote to all of that. The assertion that his mission was ‘detoxify the Tory brand’ rapidly became something of a cliché.
While many rightwingers and rapidly aging yuppies have been nostalgic for the Thatcher period ever since Maggie left Number Ten, the experience of those years was very different for the majority of Britons.
Millions were so repulsed by their memories of mass unemployment, the poll tax, and sharply reduced spending on NHS and state education that it looked as if they were ready to vote New Labour evermore.
That is why Cameron went out of his way to demonstrate that Conservatism had fundamentally changed. There was such a thing as society, he famously averred. The NHS would be safe in his hands, and he even wanted to see WH Smith go easy on placing those Terry’s Chocolate Oranges so close to the check-out.
Hoodies and huskies alikd were hugged, while the Tory leader swore to ‘stand up to big business’, in words that would have been enough to ensure instant dismissal for anybody on the New Labour payroll vote.
Many traditionalist rightists were spitting tacks, arguing that Cameron was not a ‘real’ Conservative. One leading Daily Telegraph commentator even accused him of wanting to ‘Sovietize capitalism out of existence’.
Even I was convinced that the Tories were somehow transformed. Although I remained unpersuaded of the contention that they had reinvented themselves as the human incarnation of the Care Bear Bunch, they seemed to have converged with New Labourism to the extent that all British political parties had become happy shiny free market centre right outfits, competing on personality and competence rather than principle.
When a coalition was forged with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, it seemed as if niceness factor was locked in. Remember how the mechanics of partnership were going to restrain the hard right, and how Cameron was said to be happy at that prospect?
But political developments over the last few months demonstrate a clear reversion to type. The News International affair highlights so much more than horse sharing arrangements among the Chipping Norton set.
From Cameron’s blatant play to the eurosceptic gallery in Brussels last December to the way the cabinet thumped the table on hearing that the Health and Social Care Bill had carried, from the ending of universal child benefit and the ‘reforms’ of Disability Living Allowance to Wednesday’s tax cuts for the 1% and the record levels of youth unemployment, the recrudescence of the Thatcherites is palpable.
And you know what some people call them.