Dr Jason Aldiss BEM is Managing Director of Eville & Jones, and Chairman of Pudsey Conservative Association
The battle for the Conservative Party leadership is becoming increasingly robust. That is to be expected and even welcomed given the importance of the job both candidates seek. But I fear that the Party, which I have loyally served as an office holder and campaigner for many years, is in mortal danger.
As chairman of Pudsey Conservative Association, I recognised the hurdles we faced in the run-up to the May local elections. West Yorkshire is not the easiest place to be a Tory, even in good times. But, supported by Stuart Andrew, our hardworking MP, and a team of hardy volunteers, we managed to buck the national trend by taking a key target ward from Labour on Leeds City Council.
The city narrowly favoured Remain in the 2016 EU referendum. I am an unashamed Remainer and voted accordingly. Back then, I believed passionately that Brexit would be a disaster for our United Kingdom. Nothing has happened since to change my view.
As managing director of the company that provides Official Veterinarians (OVs) to the Food Standards Agency in England and Wales, I am acutely aware of the perils Brexit poses to the veterinary profession, the agricultural sector and the meat industry. Ninety-eight per cent of the 550 vets I employ come from outside the UK. Recruitment and retention were already major challenges before the referendum. They have become considerably more problematic since.
I pay tribute to Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart for their commendably open-minded approaches to allowing non-UK workers to come here and contribute to the well-being of our economy. In contrast, some of the anti-immigration rhetoric peddled by hardline Conservative Brexiteers has been misguided and naïve. The desire of some Tory MPs to outflank Nigel Farage on the right risks moving our party to a place on the political spectrum where it should not be.
A countless number of the doorstep conversations I’ve held with voters over the past two years have featured warm words for Theresa May. She faced an impossible task and I believe history will judge her favourably. I doubt that those Conservative Parliamentarians who sought to undermine her every move will be remembered so fondly.
I continue to oppose Brexit. But if it really must happen, it can only be on the basis of the Norwegian model. The EU27 have made clear time and time again that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be reopened. I believe them. Brexit would have happened on 29th March if the pro-Leave ideologues had taken Gove’s advice and supported the Prime Minister’s deal. Attention could then have turned to the much more important negotiations on the future relationship.
Given the current arithmetic in the Commons, May’s successor will surely face an even more testing time, with a General Election looming large on the horizon. Mindful of this, I wholeheartedly agree with the warnings from Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke that elections are won from the middle ground. Despite his many appalling failings, Tony Blair knew this, too.
Conservatives have a duty to keep Jeremy Corbyn out of Downing Street. The man has spent a lifetime as an apologist for the enemies of a country he now wants to lead. His elevation should be a source of shame for the Labour Party. We must block his path to power. But by lurching to the right under a new leader, we risk collapsing the Government, crashing the economy – or both. It is time for calm heads and clear thinking in the national interest and best traditions of the Conservative and Unionist Party. We cannot risk going into Opposition at a time of genuine crisis.
Rather than slavishly follow outdated political dogma, the new Prime Minister must demonstrate a willingness to act maturely, think pragmatically and accept responsibility for the fate of future generations. I do not believe that a recast Brexit deal with the EU is possible by 31st October. Jeremy Hunt seems reluctantly to share this view. Neither can I envisage any scenario in which Parliament will countenance a No Deal outcome. Again, I credit Hunt for his realism on this, too.
On the other side of the leadership election, the British people have the right to expect that the victor will be frank and honest with them. There is no evidence to suggest that Boris Johnson is remotely capable of such behaviour. The campaign is providing daily encouragement that Hunt can take on the task and steer our country into calmer waters. Should he win, as I feel he must, Tory MPs and members have a shared duty to do what we do best and rally around. Otherwise I fear that the Conservative Party itself, with 185 years of history, may be running out of road.