The author is Secretary of State for Defence, and is MP for Portsmouth North.
So the opening shots of a Conservative leadership contest have been fired against the backdrop of disastrous European election results. In both the Conservative and Labour parties, the post-mortems have begun. There’s general agreement that Brexit (or the lack of it) seems to be cause. But is that the whole story?
For while the main parties argue about Brexit, 25,000 desperately worried steelworkers across the country anxiously wait on news of their jobs. Last week, Panorama revealed how vulnerable disabled and autistic people at Whorlton Hall were being taunted and abused by carers. This was in much the same way as others had been eight years ago in a similar abuse case at Winterbourne View. Overseas, serious tensions are brewing as regional and global powers square off.
Set against this, the public now has to endure a parade of leadership candidates speaking to Westminster, from Westminster, about Westminster. Policy has given way to presentation. A game plan on Brexit, some animated soundbites, and a rallying cry to get better on social media and a fresh face seems to be all that’s required. Policies – or to be more accurate spending commitments – will be announced with little thought or consultation just for something plausible to say on a topic. Policy created in a vacuum never works: just look at the 2017 Conservative general election manifesto.
We’re facing a breakdown of public trust in our politics and our leadership. The compass is spinning, and across the political spectrum tactical presentation has replaced strategic policy. Some members of the same Party are not on speaking terms. One half is appalled at what the other voted for. The other half is appalled that we have not delivered Brexit yet. Others have left to form new political parties.
To blame this division solely on Brexit would be wrong. It was there previously, across many dimensions. It existed between urban and rural areas, men and women, high and low incomes and old and young. Brexit has tracked along these fault lines. The referendum, when it came, promised clarity at least on Europe – a clear mandate to leave. No wonder the British people are so dismayed at the last three years.
The disappointment about Brexit felt by the membership in the Conservative Party is echoed in that of the nation. The people haven’t lost faith in politics. They’ve lost faith in politicians who have lost faith in them. And they are calling for change.
The inadequacy of politics today goes beyond Brexit. It’s much more profound. And it requires Westminster and Whitehall to recognise that the world around them is changing, perhaps more rapidly than they realise.
The public are impatient for reform, yet legislation is achingly slow. We cannot regulate at the speed needed to enable British scientists and entrepreneurs to bring their inventions to market and to be based here. Nor right social wrongs, even when all are agreed it is the right thing to do, even when funding is there, even when the expertise is there, as has been the case with Winterbourne. Successive administrations have failed to facilitate benefits our citizens could have – access to new drugs and treatments. And governments have limited our ambition as a nation by what the Treasury alone can afford, resulting in pilots, roundtables, short-term grants and little real impact.
Political leaders have failed to notice and failed to protect people from failed leadership elsewhere. Corporate leaders have stolen pensions, avoided tax, presided over the collapse of the financial system and sheltered money offshore. Spiritual and charity leaders have covered up sexual abuse. Tech giants who have used our personal information against us and failed to protect the vulnerable. So, it’s no surprise people feel let down by their leaders.
In recent times, our politics has sometimes failed to read – and therefore failed to lead – those it serves. There is little focus on the torn social fabric of the UK.
In our United Kingdom, you can get married or have a civil partnership or access particular healthcare solely dependent on your postcode. Is this how we planned that the massive benefits of devolution – national and local – would make the United Kingdom stronger?
Apart from a string of worthy reports, the major challenges for our country, from social care to social mobility, still largely reside under a thick layer of dust in the “too tough” in-tray. And the focus on the major challenges facing the world, and the inspiration for us all to tackle them, appears not to be driven by brave politicians but by Blue Planet film makers and schoolchildren.
People are so passionate about their country and their communities, and they want to positively affect the world around them. Their frustration comes from the fact that they want to help, they have solutions, ideas and enterprises, but we don’t listen. They want to be part of a team that is working towards the same goals. They want their nation to pull together to deliver on the issues they care about. Instead, we seem to be pulling things apart.
That is how it feels. And how it feels matters. It affects our ambition. It affects what we believe is possible. And it affects our direction as a nation. It must change, and it can change. To be a political leader now, when we need to restore trust, confidence and hope, will take more than the usual tired routine.
And so this leadership contest cannot mirror those of the past. It has to be more than a fight against competing factions. We must articulate national missions that we can all unite around. How do we ensure that every citizen can reach their full potential, access the best healthcare science has discovered, protect the environment, provide social care and living support, and a secure home for all? That is the only way everyone will be able to contribute, to get different sectors to work together and to get real long-term investment. We will only arrive at those missions and the means to deliver them by listening to and being guided by our citizens.
To unlock our nation’s potential requires a different kind of leadership. Britain needs some humility from its leaders, not just from the candidates in this contest, but from us all. We should trust the people with more than just Brexit. It’s time for some servant leadership.
And that starts with listening. So next week, I will host with some of my colleagues what could be the largest live consultation our party has ever undertaken. It will allow views to be expressed on the national missions and how we deliver on them.
If we come together, listen to each other, take on the challenges and embrace the opportunities of our times to enable all that our party and nation has to offer, then there will be nothing we cannot do. To lead, we must listen.
Join Penny Mordaunt and other MPs in a live consultation of grassroots Conservative members on Tuesday 4th of June at 8pm. You can sign up here. The live conference call will allow views to be expressed on the most pressing issues facing the country and how we deliver on them.
You can express your views by taking part in live polling and there will time for some questions during the call. There is also the chance to email in further ideas. The findings of the call will help inform the debate and put the ideas, experience and knowledge of the party’s activists and campaigners at the heart of this contest.