Baroness Stowell is a former Leader of the House of Lords.
Like John Major and many others, was appalled by last week’s shameful debacle over Owen Paterson’s failure to meet parliamentary standards. I agree there’s a whiff of ‘we are the masters now’ which is seriously damaging, and that there is a Brexit connection to this arrogance.
But for the greater good, if we are to salvage anything from rehearsing this sorry saga, I would offer a broader analysis than my old boss on where things have gone wrong.
Let me start with Paterson and his loyal supporters, most of whom are long-serving MPs and like him, from what we used to call the Euro-sceptic wing of the Conservative Party.
I think it needs saying, for their sake and that of their Remain opponents’, that they did not win the referendum. Obviously, they were on the winning side. But people didn’t vote to leave the European Union because some MPs – however committed to their cause and principled they may be – campaigned against the EU for decades.
These MPs can justifiably claim that they did more than almost anyone else to make the referendum happen so that people were given a say. But people didn’t vote for them, or even Boris Johnson once they had the opportunity to choose whether to Leave or Remain.
I say this for three reasons.
First, politicians and campaigners for Remain need to stop obsessing about the failings of their opponents, and instead ask themselves some searching questions as to why they lost.
Second, any die-hard Eurosceptic MPs who believe we are out of the European Union or that the Conservatives have an 80-seat majority because of their single-minded obsession for the last 30 years need to think again.
And, third, to illustrate how we all need to concentrate less on each other and more on meeting public expectations if the whole system of politics isn’t to crash around our heads.
When David Cameron called the referendum in 2016 (and I was a member of his Cabinet at the time), I thought more people would vote Remain. I couldn’t conceive how or why people would support a campaign to leave the EU which had, up to that point, only attracted seemingly fanatical MPs.
I was wrong. Not just in the outcome, but because, in choosing which view to take, I focused on the wrong people to inform which way I should vote.
As the campaign progressed and I listened to non-political people who were planning to vote Leave, I realised I had made a mistake and that the referendum was – as every democratic event is – about them.
They were looking at all of us, and the way that institutions, the democratic process, and people in positions of power do or do not work in their interest. The Leave campaign’s definition of this being a moment when people could take back control helped to elevate people’s vote beyond the hands of politicians, and to put them in the driving seat.
That’s why any arrogance from supporters of the winning side is misplaced: the result was not a vote of confidence in anyone. It was a vote of no confidence in practically everyone. And it’s also why those of us on the losing side needed to reflect even harder, and understand how we’d contributed to people’s lack of faith in the institutions which are supposed to serve them. It was a verdict on all of us, with a demand that we all change.
I was genuinely excited by this outcome. So much so that when I opened the House of Lords’ first big debate about the way forward after the referendum result, I was accused of being panglossian by the Liberal Democrats.
But my euphoria at losing didn’t last. Theresa May dispensed with my service as Leader of the Lords on her arrival in Number 10, and I was left with plenty of time to reflect on my own mistakes.
I truly believed nonetheless that – LibDems aside – the political and business worlds would grasp the opportunity to change things for the better. But instead,after 2016, things just got worse. MPs and the House of Lords engaged in battle, the business world stood on the side-lines demanding that everyone else give them ‘certainty’, and John Major and others went to court – which seemed very arrogant to many Leave voters and even some Remain ones. Everyone kept fighting and ignoring the people who matter most.
The changing point came after July 2019, when Boris Johnson and his team did everything it took to deliver what people had voted for. His unswerving commitment to meet the expectations of the majority of voters who wanted to leave the EU (and others who were fed up with all the shenanigans by then), and his promise to deliver the kind of change people had been crying out for far too long, is what caused the largest Tory majority for over 30 years in December 2019.
Last week’s cack-handed attempt to use people’s precious votes to re-write disciplinary rules broken by an MP was breathtakingly arrogant. The fact that it came after a series of mistakes and missteps when rules have been broken or standards not maintained is concerning.
This matters, and the legitimate criticisms directed at the Government show why. But Johnson’s detractors also need to be careful not to conflate this failure with Brexit, or to use it as yet another chance to blame those who voted for it rather than reflecting on their own failings.
As for the Prime Minister and his supporters, they need to concentrate less on themselves and more on what voters want and expect, because these same voters now know they have the power to force dramatic change via the ballot box. Having done it once, they could do it again.