Tobias Ellwood is a former Defence Minister, and is MP for Bournemouth East.
Prior to deployment in theatres of war, fighting units are handed rules of engagement cards. These are timely reminders of the higher mission, the commander’s intent, the individual role and, importantly, actions to be taken in the event of contact with hostiles, civilians or friendly forces.
Regardless of how well troops are trained, in the fog of war, it is possible to lose sight of your mission, men and – briefly – your mind. Given the anger and frustration over Brexit, there are some clear parallels with politics. As we endure what is arguably the most testing political time since the war, it is worth politicians reminding ourselves of our own rules of engagement: what defines us, unites us, inspires us. Our values, our ethos, and our vision.
We have entered uncharted and extremely choppy waters : successful navigation will require, strategic thought, leadership and teamwork. This has been a dramatic week, but may only be a taster of what’s to come, beginning with another significant vote on Monday.
If chasing that illusive Brexit deal whilst honoring the October deadline with a minority government were not challenging enough, we Conservative MPs now countenance Parliament taking control of procedures; attempts to secure a general election; defections, resignations – and new disciplinary measures imposed on 21 parliamentary colleagues.
This weekend therefore provides a welcome interlude in which to remain calm, take stock of events, regroup, and remind ourselves of who we are, what binds us together and the higher purpose which we sign up to when we join the Party.
First, let’s be honest with ourselves: we end this week with the Parliamentary Party’s complexion looking decidedly different to that at the start. I raised my concerns at this week’s 1922 committee meeting – namely, the optics of the Party seemingly shifting to the right following the disciplinary decisions in relation to support for the No Deal Bill.
The Prime Minister’s response was emphatic. Away from the chaos of Brexit, his One Nation credentials are impressive and were evident during his tenure as Mayor of London. Encouragingly, he confirmed that any repeat of disloyalty from the so-called Spartans, if a new deal with the EU is voted on, would receive the same consequences. And I am heartened by the diversity of views and positions that are on display within the next generation of candidates poised to represent our party across the country in the next election.
But optics matter. Away from the Westminster bubble, if the Party is perceived to veer to the right there will be an impact on our prospects at ballot box. Appeal beyond it will be concentrated and narrowed. We should be proud of the wide bandwidth that our Party commands across the right of the political spectrum.
The centre ground remains the key battleground to winning elections, just as in the game of squash: dominate the ‘T’ and you own the game. Retreat to the wings – and you reduce your impact. Calls from some quarters to unite or align with the Brexit Party would see that broad appeal reduced. We should not be spooked by a party that is absent of any substantial policy positions and plays on fear and anger. We should have the confidence to win a majority without cause to align with other party.
We regularly describe ourselves as a broad church and rightly so. We are the party of the ERG and of the TRG, the Bow Group and the No Turning Back Group – The party of Margaret Thatcher and Ted Heath, of Michael Portillo and of Iain Duncan Smith, of Baldwin and Salisbury, of Disraeli and Peel.
Conservative traditionalists, modernisers, progressives – all patriots united as competitive free marketers and fiscally responsible capitalists supporting small government, low taxation; wanting to promote opportunity, family values and the responsibilities of the individual, community and nation as part of country with ability and desire to shape world as a force for good.
Our ability to adapt and modernise is what has allowed our Party not just to survive but to thrive longer than any other. We rejuvenate and reform whilst remaining loyal to our core values. Edmund Burke described modern conservatism as a desire to reform in order to conserve what is important us – our core beliefs.
And reform we must. We face some long-term challenges over party membership, youth representation and the prospect of two party dominance potentially coming to an end. However, until Brexit is concluded, the failure to honour the referendum outcome will continue to blur our conservative credentials both nationally and individually – overshadowing any fresh initiatives such as the Chancellor’s spending review.
The review – ending austerity measures and announcing substantial funds for policing, health and education illustrate how we can repeat the rejuvenation of the 1950s and underline our centre ground credentials.
It has been a mother of bruising weeks. It’s likely to get tougher. The nation is watching. Let’s show what a modern, progresive Conservative Party can achieve when we stay united, focused and true to our cause.