Andrew Sharpe OBE is Chairman of the National Conservative Convention. He has previously served as President and Vice-President of the NC and before that held office as an Association Chairman, Area Chairman and Regional Chairman in the Conservative party.
The Extraordinary General Meeting that I called for June 15th was to debate a specific motion that is now redundant. For constitutional reasons, I cannot amend the agenda. But what I can do is invite all members of the National Convention to a Central London location on June 15th for an informal meeting. To that meeting I would now like to extend an invitation to all the candidates in the Conservative Party leadership election that will by then have been running for a few days.
Chairing the National Conservative Convention is a great privilege. Our organisational structure ensures that we are a One Nation party in deed, as well as in word. The job of the Chairman is to helm the convention through the turbulent waters that are created by the tensions implicit in such a structure – be they national, regional, county, urban, rural, or, of course, individual. This is only possible if the office holder maintains a studious neutrality. To extend the seafaring analogy to breaking point, the helmsman’s opinion about the iceberg is irrelevant: avoiding it is his primary job.
But we live in unusual times. The Conservative & Unionist Party is about to embark on a process of choosing a new leader and in effect a Prime Minister, a task of the utmost gravity as our country faces some very serious challenges, both domestic and in the international arena.
This is not one that Party members take lightly and it will be the job of my colleagues on the National Convention and I to ensure that the leadership candidates face an extremely rigorous examination. Hustings will be held in every region – this is non-negotiable. I would expect that members will attend in large numbers ready to test the candidate’s politics, mettle, stamina and ability to extemporise. Only then should we arrive at a measured conclusion as to their suitability to take on what will be one of the most demanding political roles of the past 50 years. This is not just a Party matter.
Under these circumstances I do not think it would be to compromise my neutrality to interpret what, at a minimum, most Conservatives, whether large or small “c”, would expect from our future Prime Minister. I want the leadership candidates to tell me three things.
1. How they are going to deliver Brexit.
2. How they are going to unite and refresh the Conservative Party.
3. How they are going to win the next general election.
Brexit needs to be sorted quickly. The next election needs to be fought over Britain, not Brexit. It needs to pit modern conservatism against recidivist socialism as personified by Jeremy Corbyn. This is a battle that we have won before and it is imperative that we win it again.
When conservatism prevails against socialism, it is because we own our substantial achievements and do not shrink cravenly from them. The Government has a very strong record on jobs, the economy, the deficit, taxes and NHS spending, and we do not make the case frequently or forcefully enough. On the other hand, I doubt that I am in a minority in questioning the Conservative basis for threatening to bash private landlords, compromise freedom in any way, or use language plucked straight out of Gramsci’s destructive playbook.
The Conservative Party is also far too reticent about owning its very long list of “progressive” achievements that have made our country such a great place to live. I find it bizarre that in 2019, the centenary year of the Conservative Women’s Organisation, so few people know that Emmeline Pankhurst was selected as a Conservative candidate in 1928. Or that the first Conservative MP from a BAME background was elected in 1896. Or that the first animal sentience legislation was passed by a Tory, Lord Liverpool, in 1824. It is time we celebrated our cultural inheritance and influence because that helps us to articulate our values and our view of the future.
The next general election will need to be fought on those values. Aside from my Convention job, I am also proud to be the Vice Chairman of the Conservative Policy Forum. The forum has grown exponentially since the 2015 election, and is the conduit for the membership’s views on policy.
I would urge all leadership candidates to read through the policy papers of the past couple of years in which they will find the considered views of many party members. In particular, the papers on Conservative Values (July 2018), Global Britain (April 2019) and the Post-Brexit Economy (May 2019) should prove instructive, and might also help dispel a few myths routinely trotted out by our opponents.
Our achievements are substantial and our new leader needs to be capable of blending them all into a compelling narrative of a modern, inclusive party which has something to offer people of all ages, backgrounds and from all parts of the United Kingdom. The Conservative Party has been severely tested by Brexit division, but this need not be permanent. There is far more that unites us than divides us and I never meet any Conservative, from either side of the Brexit debate, who does not believe that our country is capable of a strong and secure future outside the EU while remaining friends and allies with all of its members. Our party does not stand for insular England – but all too often we let that lazy narrative prevail.
So: to all the candidates, on June 15th please come, and explain to the Conservative Party’s officers from across our entire United Kingdon who you are, what you stand for and how you intend to answer my three questions.