The 1970s are back in fashion again – at least from the TV schedules’ point of view. It is fascinating watching and reading ‘history’ that I can, just about, dimly remember bits of. No doubt, Dominic Sandbrook’s Seasons in the Sun will make it on to my colleague Keith Simpson’s summer reading list he issues to colleagues, but for once I hope I have earned a few brownie points by reading it a little early. And frightening reading it is too – the extent of the industrial chaos, squeeze on living standards and political inability to cope make my hair stand on end.
So given the ‘headless chickens’ within the Party are on the run again and all because we have not had the most perfect few weeks imaginable, and we have had a setback at the real polls also, I am left wondering how we would have coped during the Three Day Week? Of course, this isn’t to dismiss what has occurred. Far from it, there are ‘lessons to be learned’ amidst 1001 other clichés. But we don’t just need ‘answers’, we need to make sure we ask the right questions as to what has happened, and why, and what can be done to improve it.
So I don’t find it helpful when colleagues rush to Twitter, TV or whatever, within seconds of polls closing, to offer an opinion or a one-word solution. Far better, in my view, to observe, listen and analyse. We have plenty of statements, not enough suggestions about what to do next. And whilst I don’t agree with the prescription that we should just ‘lurch/move/turn to the right’ <employ verb according to simplistic label>, at least it can be the start of a discussion. For example, it’s no use diagnosing a Northern problem without actually coming up with a solution (and I could write a whole article just on my answer to that question).
Most important of all though, colleagues need to maintain some semblance of unity. Nothing reflects worse on the Party in the eyes of the ordinary voter if we start to turn on our senior politicians, or each other. Whether we agree or disagree with what is going on, there are forums for MPs to express themselves without having to wash dirty linen in public. It’s called the 1922 Committee and it is about time it reverted to being a ‘safe space’ in which these sorts of issues can be discussed without knowing your name will be broadcast everywhere. That’s one reason some are looking to other groups such as 301 – precisely because they know they can have confidence that comments will stay within the room.
I sometimes feel the Conservative Party has an unparalleled ability to form a circular firing squad when things get ‘tough’ – and the threshold for ‘tough’ is getting lower all the time. Many of the most vocal critics are those who fought hard to gain seats in 2001 and 2005 from the Opposition – and they need to realise that those of us who fought hard to gain our seats last time don’t always appreciate the self-indulgent attacks on the leadership. Anyone who cares to analyse the pre-1997 period will see how the disappearance of ‘team ethic’ meant we had a worse defeat in 1997 than was deserved, perhaps, given our record. There are seats we won by just 100-200 in 1997, that we now win by 15,000 plus. Colleagues sitting in what they may think are supposedly safe seats shouldn’t think it couldn’t happen again.
None of this is to suggest we don’t have areas where we need to improve. But it isn’t a case of sending ‘Dave’ off to have some glottal stops added via some elocution lessons in the middle of the Thames Estuary. We need to ensure that we have a ‘whole of government’ approach, that we ensure the public understand that tackling the deficit, starting to try to tackle the debt and promoting economic growth are not mutually exclusive but actually a strategy. There is no ‘plan for growth’ whose point one is not ‘get government spending down’. And maybe that is our problem –intellectually, our policies are right. But we need to explain them in a narrative that people can understand. It used to be Gordon Brown who read as though spouting tractor production statistics. But there is a reason we tell our children stories at bedtime … because narratives mean so much more.
ConservativeHome has always rightly promoted the ‘and’ theory of Conservatism, so the focus on getting the basic economic policy right should never stop us pursuing other political goals. But whilst I might be content with Lords reform, though broadly opposed to the consultation on gay ‘civil marriage’, I’m probably on the side of those who think that they may have to take a back seat as we focus on the other, bigger challenges this nation faces, such as how we meet the financial challenge of a growing elderly population.
This is David Cameron’s opportunity. He has two important hats that he wears. One is Prime Minister. The other is Leader of the Conservative Party. So let’s hear him set out a vision for this Party within the Government, speaking as Party Leader as well as Prime Minister. We often hear Nick Clegg’s goals, so let us enunciate what we intend to push for. I know I am not the only MP who wants to see us articulate a stronger narrative that appeals to this disparate group known as the ‘strivers’. Now is our chance to shape a strategy around that narrative. We can’t leave the definition of the Conservative Party within Government to merely be the ‘leftovers’ of what hasn’t already been claimed by the LibDems. We too have a purpose in Government, and we shouldn’t be shy about staking that territory out.
So to do that, I think we have some questions we need to answer amongst ourselves. We do need to decide whether 2010 was a success or not. It may have got us a Conservative PM, but we wanted so much more, and we have to recognise that we fell short, and understand why. We also need to decide ‘whither localism’ (another topic for a whole new article … ).
And we need to do better at understanding what the Labour Party are doing. They seem oddly excited when attacking NewsCorp, but very, very, very sour otherwise. I think we should be far more bullish about Leveson, and why we set it up. So much of our bad press has come about because the media is punishing us for daring to turn the tables on them. I recognise that – but think it a price worth paying to exorcise some of the ghosts of the past. That Labour aren’t reconciled to their own incestuous relationship with Murdoch is something we should keep reminding them about when they get all ‘holier than thou’. And with the loathsome Tom Watson as Chief Inquisitor, we should never forget that he is pursuing his Master’s wish (Gordon Brown) to declare war on NewsCorp for ditching its support for Labour.
We also need some perspective. We need to consider ‘no drama Obama’ and the lessons that has for us MPs when the going gets slightly tougher. And our senior politicians need to perceive the value of what are fashionably called ‘teachable moments’. I wish the debates over charitable giving could have been elevated to a debate about what makes a good charity these days – and whether the definition is as useful as it once was. I wish the aggro over the supposed granny tax could have become an object lesson in why so many pensioners fail to claim what they are entitled to in the first place. If tax simplification is to work as a long-term process, we have to explain examples better.
Surging rightwards for the sake of it will just see us sliding on yet more banana skins and hitting the ground so much harder. We cannot ask the Prime Minister to be someone he clearly isn’t, merely to provide some healing balm to those who hanker after certainties in an era when politics has to be about nuance. Better to analyse, understand and diagnose the problem. Then be ruthless about executing the change. And this comes from someone who purports to be a right-winger.
If you had offered me a 7-point Labour lead in 2012 the day after we formed the Government, I suspect I might have taken it. Indeed, part of me is surprised we have never ended up 20% behind given the scale of the task we have taken on. So we should never exaggerate our troubles for internal machinations, nor to give the press who love to make their readers angry yet more ammunition.
Throughout all my time in this party, I have returned again and again to the question “Why does the Conservative Party exist?” There are often times when I have felt we have lost our way. There are times when I feel that the politics of ‘neither’ are trumping the politics of ‘and’ just because we lack the energy to pursue them. We exist, though, not just to occupy power for its own sake, or even merely to deny it to the opposition, but to wield that power for a purpose. The purpose is clear in all we are doing to reform education and welfare – but we need to tell ourselves the story over and over again if we are to not let ourselves be blinded to that purpose.