Peter Franklin is Associate Editor at UnHerd.com.
I am not a fan of portmanteau words. ‘Infomercial’. ‘Edutainment’. ‘Staycation’. ‘Dancercise’. ‘Digerati’.
I feel sick just typing them out.
There are a few portmanteaus that we couldn’t do without – ‘motel’, for instance; and, more recently, ‘Brexit’. These at least have the virtue of brevity and trip off the tongue without too much effort. Unfortunately, that can’t be said for the word I’ve coined for this article. It is, I’m afraid, an affront to our beautiful language, and for that I apologise profusely. Nevertheless, ‘Govopposition’ is an idea whose time has come.
No rest for the Conservatives
Over the last three years, the political landscape has been turned upside-down not once, nor twice, but three times – i.e. the demise of the Coalition in 2015, the vote for Brexit in 2016 and the disastrous snap election of 2017. The casualties are strewn across the battlefield: Cameroons, Lib Dems, Faragistes and the entire moderate wing of the Labour Party.
The Conservative Party remains in office, but battered, bruised and baffled by developments its leaders haven’t got a grip on. Usually, when a governing party finds itself in such a state, it’s a prelude to its ejection from power – and a period in opposition in which to regain its bearings. Yet there’s no rest for the Tories. Believe it or not, it is now 20 years since the Party last went into opposition. As things stand, it’ll be another five years before that possibility next presents itself.
Earlier this month, our deputy editor Mark Wallace had some harsh but fair words for the anonymous minister who said the following to the Sunday Times:
“It’s a horrible thing to say…but we are getting closer and closer to the point whereby we need some time in opposition to regroup.”
Mark rightly advised the minister to self-administer a slap. Quite apart from the sheer immorality of handing over the country to Corbyn and Co., there are the practicalities to consider. The current parliamentary arithmetic does not allow for a Labour-led government, not even one in coalition with the SNP, etc. Another snap election could change that, but I doubt that Brenda from Bristol and millions like her would be best pleased. What sort of a country would yet another round of political chaos make us look like? Germany?
Yet, while the responsibilities of government must be shouldered, there’s no doubting the need for a time of renewal – one as profound as in any period of opposition. The weaknesses that must be addressed are comprehensive, encompassing the three P’s: people, policy and party organisation:
People – What normally happens after the fall of a long-standing party leadership is that old faces are replaced by younger, fresher ones. But with the exit of David Cameron and George Osborne, the opposite happened.
Policy – There is something deeply wrong with the process of policy development. At each of the last three elections, the party has found a new and interesting way of producing a calamitous manifesto. In government, by way of contrast, the failure to rise to defining challenges, such as the housing crisis, has been solidly consistent.
Party – At some point, the Conservatives have to decide whether they want to be a 21st century political movement or a historical re-enactment society.
Masters of the art
Caught between the responsibilities of government and the need for opposition, Conservatives have no choice but to master the art of renewal while in power. Some, but not all, of the party’s biggest names are beginning to get it.
The chart at the top of this article shows who is succeeding and who isn’t. The left-right axis stretches from conventional governmentalism at one extreme to rebellious internal opposition at the other. The centre-ground is govopposition, where the virtues of government and opposition can be combined. The up-down axis is a straight measure of effectiveness.
The senior Cabinet
Languishing in the governmental corner, it’s Theresa May and Philip Hammond. Both have arrested their downward trajectory for the moment, but neither can be said to be in a strong position. Few would claim they represent the future of the Conservative Party.
Boris Johnson is enough of a loose cannon to put himself into govopposition territory, but with a ministerial record that drags him down. Amber Rudd has the opposite problem – a solid performance in government, but little sense of a distinctive vision.
The Dependables and the Rising Stars
Outside of the inner Cabinet we find the unsung heroes of government – the ministers who get on with the job without seeking or attracting much publicity. David Gauke is the archetype of these Dependables, but they also include people like my old boss Greg Clark, David Lidington and Karen Bradley. The ability not to screw up every five minutes is not to be sniffed at, but these men and women of experience must feel free to speak out on wider issues beyond their immediate responsibilities.
The same applies to a younger group of Rising Stars, the likes of Kemi Badenoch, Johnny Mercer, Tom Tugendhat and James Cleverly. There are many bright hopes for the future here – and in the current atmosphere of gloom the temptation will be accelerate their progress through the ranks. That might not be the best way forward, however. One day, let us hope, they’ll be sitting around the Cabinet table together, but for now we need to hear their ideas, not their civil service-drafted statements from the Despatch Box. They need to be assured that speaking out is a requirement for, not an impediment to, their future advancement.
Every government has its awkward squad – and this one is no exception. Anna Soubry and the hardline Tory remainers, constitute a more formidable opposition to Brexit than all of Labour and the Liberal Democrats put together. Meanwhile Grant Shapps has been one of the few Conservative MPs to call for Theresa May’s resignation. This has got him nowhere – yet.
On the furthest edge of the chart we find George Osborne. Making the Evening Standard relevant again was no mean feat, but his ‘freezer’ comments did not help his cause.
Her Majesty’s Govopposition
Finally we get to those who get it. First up, Michael Gove, who understands the urgent need to develop a positive vision for Brexit Britain. From his perch at DEFRA he’s been winning friends across the political spectrum with his idea of a ‘green Brexit’. The only reason why I haven’t put him in the govopposition box is that using your position to say and do inspirational things is what Cabinet ministers ****ing well ought to do. More please.
George Freeman is one of a small group of ex-ministers (also including Robert Halfon and Nick Boles) who have used their freedom constructively. It would be much better if serving ministers were allowed to think aloud too, but let’s grab those ideas where we can get them.
The need for fresh thinking applies just as much to campaigning as it does to policy. Then again who needs ‘Momentum’ when you’ve got ‘Moggmentum’? Jacob Rees-Mogg may not be the answer to every question, but his ability to defend his principles without hesitation, irritation or obfuscation is a tonic.
Last, but not least, we come to the Leader of Her Majesty’s Govopposition, Ruth Davidson. She’s may be not be in government, but she’s why the Conservative Party still is. There’s not much that can be said about the kick-boxing, yak-riding MSP that hasn’t been said in a thousand profiles, but do read her brilliant essay for UnHerd.com in which she presents her mission to reboot capitalism.
Socialism is a bad idea, but a big one. It will take equally big ideas to defeat it.
A Govopposition action plan
Theresa May is busy, I get that. Brexit is plenty to be getting on with. But she must empower others to get on with the bigger picture.
Here are three things she could do right now:
1. Tell the Whips to tell her Ministers and backbenchers that they’re not only allowed, but expected, to debate the future direction of the Conservative Party. No more cabals deciding the manifesto behind closed doors – because that hasn’t exactly worked out very well, has it?
2. The Party is not the Government: as a political organisation it should operate as if were already in opposition, fighting a larger, more powerful, incumbent. We need an insurgent, disruptive approach to campaigning – and a Party Chairman to match. The last thing we need is a ‘minister for the Today programme’. Rather, we need a street fighter – and he or she needs to be out in the country, not in Westminster, let alone the Cabinet. So let our activists directly elect the Chairman, with a mandate to reshape the organisation from top to toe.
3. Embracing Govopposition doesn’t mean forgetting one is in Government. We can’t fight the next election merely promising real reform, we must be already delivering it (and not just in regard to Brexit). The Prime Minister must pick at least one area for radical action and make sure it happens. My choice would be housing, where an urgent rethink is required, free from the suffocating control of the Treasury. So, don’t just put the housing minister in the Cabinet; make him or her Deputy Prime Minister with powers equal to the challenge.
On the other hand we could just carry on as we are. It’ll be fine.