Stewart Jackson is MP for Peterborough and a former Shadow Communities and Local Government Minister
This article sees me breaking Lynton Crosby’s golden rule: be a participan, not a commentator. So I apologise in advance – but troubled times need candid analysis rather than campaign etiquette, and needs must. Furthermore, I declare an interest as an avowed Eurosceptic and member of Better Off Out.
The back end of my holiday was interrupted last week by a media frenzy as my iphone buzzed with journo types anxious to hear my views on Douglas Carswell’s defection to UKIP.
They are, in short: smart guy, loss to the party, big mistake, has set back the strategic cause of patriotic sceptics – and, no, I won’t be joining him. On a personal level, Douglas always impressed me with his clear analysis and intellectual rigour, but to those right-minded Eurosceptics left behind in the party we love, his disloyalty cuts us nevertheless.
I had been kayaking down the River Ardeche in Southern France, trying to keep my vessel and its occupants afloat as we descended through an increasingly fierce series of rapids. I suspect David Cameron must feel the same today about the Conservative Party. What had been a leisurely punt on the Cherwell over the summer, with a broadly united Parliamentary Party (even after a pretty flat reshuffle which had annoyed some and elated none); a growing campaign professionalism and message discipline overseen by Lynton Crosby and Grant Shapps; and steadily improving economic news and historically pretty promising poll ratings – even in the key marginals….well, now Carswell’s duplicitous flit with Nigel Farage has promised squalls of Moby Dick potential.
My own view is that the failure to progress MP recall legislation – a foolish and irrelevant measure for most voters other than the mad, bad and vexatious, and an affront to true Parliamentary democracy – and a wider disillusionment with Parliament and Whitehall is what really lies at the heart of Carswell’s flight. UKIP are taking on an exotic bird in its coop: one who is impatient of compromise, an ideologue, hardly a pragmatist and perhaps a man who will be spoilt for choice when it comes to not suffering fools gladly in his new party. However, he has made his bed.
So what are we – and especially the Prime Minister – to do now?
Let’s start with the basics: There is no threat to Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party. There once was – but not now. The clever decision to unite the party around James Wharton’s EU Referendum Bill last year was good politics, and brought the Tory family together after the disastrous self-inflicted debacle that was same sex marriage – which gave rocket fuel to UKIP and gained few, if any votes, from the social liberals who hate the Tories whatever we do or did.
Jobs and the economy are king. Pocket book issues count and will always count, especially with the 70 per cent of voters who only take an interest in politics in an election year and, fundamentally, make a binary choice on which of two party leaders will take care of their mortgages, jobs, savings. pensions and businesses.
Labour is a mass of incoherent policy confusions – poorly thought out – and a leader with abysmal ratings. In addition, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage could promise sex and chocolate (and probably will) but the voters aren’t daft. They know that these two have zero chance of being PM. Indeed, whatever the Lib Dems promise, the voters know that they are broken as a serious political force, and will polish them off in quite big numbers next year. Ipso facto, Cameron must bang on about jobs, families, pay packets, growth, opportunities until he’s sick of the sound of his own voice – as we all must do till next May. The focus needs to be on people, and not numbers.
It won’t be enough, however. We will never convince a hard core of voters that we are nicer, smoother, kinder and gentler than the other parties – so why bother to try? Certainly, we should resist the temptation to suck up to a metropolitan elite which detests our values and principles because such anti-intuitive modernising schtick has consistently failed in the last 17 years. Self abasement is rarely a pretty sight.
We can instead trumpet practical and historically consistent Tory principles of progressive achievement over the last four years: heroic fiscal rectitude (more or less), reforms to adoption and fostering, prisoner rehabilitation, restoring self respect and community with our welfare reforms, Michael Gove’s hard won-school reforms, action on modern day slavery, Help to Buy and increasing the minimum wage on the way to establishing a living wage. This is real Tory modernisation…
Next, the Primer Minister must circle the wagons and show the Right some man love. The reshuffle, sacking of Owen Paterson, and non-job offered to Liam Fox were an egregious affront to proud men – especially as we know that there are some total lightweights in government for pretty facile reasons. It smacked a little of hubris. It’s time for open dialogue, a more inclusive debate and some real teamwork and bridge building. However, gifted and talented he may think he is, the hour will be dark between now and the New Year, and Cameron and will need all the friends he can get. In the spirit of full transparency, I saw him in July for a short meeting to discuss EU migration and I appreciated the gesture. Yes, me!
Immigration. Whatever way you cut it, it’s the Tyranasaurus Rex in the room. Yes, the economic is just about on top as the voters’ most pressing issue, but immigration is soaring as an issue of voter salience across all pollsters, with a vicious circle to our disadvantage, as UKIP feed off real and imagined fears (more real than imagined in my opinion.)
If he wants to remain Prime Minister, Cameron must be bold on this issue, if he is win back the voters trust and a sizeable chunk of UKIP voters, most of whom couldn’t give a monkey’s uncle about the EU but are angry about unrestricted immigration and its impact. He must ignore the Europhile Establishment such as the Foreign Office, the CBI (the multinationals’ trade union) and exhausted volcanoes like Lord Heseltine.
That means effectively ripping up the Free Movement Directive, adopting the tough German and Spanish models on social assistance and public services for migrants and challenging the European Court of Justice to stop us: It means suspending our membership of the European Court of Human Rights (so firing Dominic Grieve and Ken Clarke was a good move in that respect) – as Sweden once did – and it means a huge boost in funding for UK Borders. Fundamentally, platitudinous flim-flam about repatriating powers (unspecified) from the EU just won’t cut it any longer.
In a sense, Carswell has perversely greatly aided the Prime Minister by giving him the impetus and imperative to articulate a clearer and compelling and deliverable vision of a pre-referendum relationship with the European Union.
“Carswell’s Choice” has a limited performance run, and will close to muted reviews with the Scottish Referendum result, the party conferences, the Autumn Statement and the developing election campaign – the serious choice between a party which has rescued this country from financial calamity and one which has refused to apologise for the self-same. Carswell is the Andy Warhol of Walton on the Naze. The cards are still stacked in Cameron’s favour – but only if he plays them with skill, and looks and acts like a true Conservative Prime Minister. He can still be a winner next May.