Rob Wilson is a former Minister for Civil Society, and was MP for Reading East from 2005 – 2017.
Governments with small majorities in our Parliamentary system tend to be weak. For such Governments there usually comes an event which proves to be a turning point in its fortunes; for example, the ERM and Black Wednesday proved a seismic event for the Major administration. And once public perception hardens against a weak government, it’s very hard to recover.
There is still reason to be positive, to date the May Government has been remarkably resilient, opinion polls show a small lead mid-term and no single event that has seen a hardening of the public mood against it. Whether the Windrush debacle is an event that leads to a turn in public mood has still to play out. It’s still unlikely as many voters like the idea of illegal immigration being robustly policed, but Number Ten will be concerned about the more serious charge of general incompetence being levelled at it by the Labour Party. Why? Because the Conservative Party knows it is rarely popular and in power because it is loved for its compassion and empathy, it is usually in government because it is skilled and proficient at running things, particularly the economy – often clearing up the mess left by Labour governments.
Building a successful narrative of an incompetent Government rotting from the inside will be an essential Labour narrative if it is the bring the Government down or win a substantial majority at a general election. There is nothing like the stench of political death to put voters off a party. So the political battle over the competence versus incompetence of the May Government has therefore begun. On the back of Windrush, the Labour Party will want the question that plays out in the minds of the electorate to be “Is this Conservative Government serially incompetent, nasty and rotten?”
The evidence is thin, but it is a question to which Downing Street must have an answer to over the coming weeks and months. Opposition parties will ensure that resigning Ministers, losing Parliamentary votes, making silly mistakes, not being fully across a brief, are unlikely to be shrugged off quite so easily post Windrush. Everybody in Government needs to be on red alert to avoid mishaps and mistakes, Ministers will need to make their case robustly and lead public opinion rather than respond to it. The perception of the Government and its poll lead now depends on a period of solid performance.
Easy to say, but it is not going to be remotely easy to deliver. The Government is facing difficult local election results, defeats in Parliament over the EU Withdrawal Bill and other things, plus the Prime Minister will soon be faced with her own ‘Kobayashi Maru’ test. For those who don’t know their Star Trek, the test is where there is a no win scenario for trainee captains of a starship. The Prime Minister could have just such a no win scenario within the Conservative Party over the customs union.
However, the first test of whether there has been any perceptible public mood shift will come early on Friday morning. Local elections are taking place against predictions that the results will be fairly dire for the Conservatives, particularly in the more metropolitan areas. Managing the loss of hundreds of local councillors in addition to the dozens of MPs last year, will present two important challenges to the Conservative Party. First, the ground operation will be weakened for future elections, making marginal seats harder to win back (it will be interesting to see if Labour does better than in Conservative seats that were lost last year) and second, winning elections keeps people together, losing causes dissent. Conservatives will need to avoid the ill-discipline of fighting like ferrets in a sack.
The Government must also take care with losing too many votes in Parliament. There are no easy answers to this when a government has such a small majority and usually the public doesn’t care about the odd vote being lost. But Brexit has rightly been singled out as the No1 issue for the Government to get right, yet more votes will be lost on the EU Withdrawal Bill and probably elsewhere too. A Government that can’t command its majority adds to doubt, as does open argument between a Secretary of State and a senior civil servant. Whatever the rights and wrongs of what is happening between David Davis and Olly Robbins, the iron rule must remain ‘civil servants advise, Ministers decide’.
If this were not enough for any Prime Minister, a customs union decision can cannot be kicked down the road much further. The ‘Kobayashi Maru’ test will have to be faced. Parliament appears to have a majority to remain in the EU customs union thanks to Conservative rebels. Brexiteers would not accept this “betrayal of the referendum vote” and the consequences could be very significant indeed. Divisions over Europe have arguably brought down three Conservative Prime Ministers, and it seems unlikely that any Party, let alone the Prime Minister, could survive the divisions that such a Parliamentary vote would unleash. The Parliamentary Conservative Party and Ministers have a shared duty to find a workable solution that honours the referendum result and stops the wrong sort of Conservative Party history being made.
Yet again the Conservative Party is on a precipice: if these circumstances do develop any debate about a competent or incompetent government will fail to matter, as a failure to hold together on the customs union could begin the chain reaction which leads to only one place – a Marxist controlled Labour Party winning power and governing the United Kingdom with a sizeable majority.