Bruce Anderson identifies me, along with Iain Martin and Patrick Mercer, as one of his “belly-aching” right-wing pundits who should trust Cameron, Osborne, and Hague, and let them get on with their “daunting task”. First, I should remark that, if I am doubtful that I deserve to be mentioned alongside men as worthy as Iain and Patrick, I am certain that I am not remotely as opposed to the Conservative leadership as either of them! I don’t recall ever suggesting the Conservative Party should have a different leader from Cameron, or joining in with the common throng’s proclaim that Osborne wasn’t up to the job.
I do recall saying, more than a decade ago, that I thought William Hague would make an excellent Foreign Secretary. I recall writing numerous articles and giving numerous media interviews defending the Coalition’s deficit reduction strategy (to the devising of which I made my own modest contribution). I recall in the run-up to the 2007 Party Conference writing that David Cameron was the man that could turn it all around for us with one speech. I recall defending Cameron’s decision not to have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty at a time when others condemned him, and supporting his new European strategy. And in all these things I recall being condemned by others for my blind loyalty.
I also, however, recall that I urged that public spending needed to be cut by about £80bn at a time when the Party’s policy was to oppose any cuts in spending — and that the Party came my way. I recall, earlier, arguing against ID cards and in favour of homosexual civil partnerships at a time when that was against party policy — and that the Party came my way. I recall writing numerous articles in the 1990s arguing that Britain should not join the euro, at a time when it was Party policy to join when economic conditions allowed — and that the Party came my way.
So I hope Bruce will forgive me if I do not consider it my allotted role in life simply to agree with whatever Party policy happens to be at the time but, instead, reflect upon what is right and what is needed and what is pragmatically possible and then seek to win the Party over to my view — as I (and my allies) have done numerous times before.
Bruce appears to have three key complaints: that some on the Right argue for tax cuts funded by additional spending cuts; that some argue for early renegotiation of our position within the European Union; and that some urge that there was something flawed in our approach to the 2010 General Election. Furthermore, he complains that those on the Right give the impression of considering these matters easy.
I’m not one of those arguing for tax cuts (though in due course there will need to be more spending cuts). However, I think the intellectually correct debate to be having is the one between those like myself that (at least for now) support the Coalition’s plan, and (a) those that believe we should have the same amount of spending cuts but also some tax cuts; and (b) those that believe we should have more spending cuts. The debate of the past two years, with those on the Left that argue that we should not cut spending and that if the economy slows we should cut the deficit by less, has been pointless and empty. There is not the slightest possibility of us cutting spending by less, and all the airtime the BBC and other channels devote to this question is time that could be better spent watching paint dry. I welcome the challenge of the Allister Heaths and Fraser Nelsons who urge us on, urging us to be bolder. I only wish that more of my debates could be with them, as the genuine alternative to the Coalition’s plans.
I am one of those urging early renegotiation of our position within the European Union. Bruce appears to object to our doing so. But renegotiation has been our policy for the past three General Elections. The Conservative Party has opposed the past three EU Treaties, and our leadership swore blind that it would not let matters rest there after Lisbon was ratified. Support for membership of the EU, amongst the British public, is bleeding from multiple arteries. If we do not renegotiate soon, Britain will probably eventually leave the EU. Bruce may think this a matter of little consequence or urgency. But the Conservative Party does not. When I urge renegotiation, I give voice to the position of some ninety per cent of Conservative Party members.
Yet the Conservative Party policy is, at present, not to seek early repatriation of any powers, nor in any other way to renegotiate our position within the EU — in short, to let matters lie where they stood after the Lisbon Treaty. And that is our position despite the fact that, at this moment, there is a major revision to the Treaty awaiting ratification, which we could have used as a bargaining chip. Furthermore, if it is really true that the Liberal Democrats are a blockage on our ability to seek renegotiation (which I do not believe, and two thirds of Conservative Party members do not believe, either — they believe we are not renegotiating because the Conservative Party leadership does not want to renegotiate), then the Conservative Party leadership has enacted policies that lock in that blockage, such as the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.
Third, Bruce regards it as “Bennite” to believe that there was anything wrong with the Conservative Party’s positioning at the 2010 General Election. My view on this is clear and longstanding: I regard the 2010 General Election campaign positioning as simply a slightly superior version of the 2005 and 2001 General Election campaign positionings (and I was opposed to them). In 2001, 2005 and in the run-up to 2010 (especially 2006-mid-2009), the chosen positioning was to avoid the issues of central concern to Conservative Party activists (and the public) — namely the economy, public spending, and the reforms of public services and welfare — and instead try to move the debate onto less mainstream issues where it was thought we could better compete with Labour. In 2001 that was asylum-seekers and the euro; in 2005 it was immigration; in 2006-2009 it was green issues and gay rights. None of these was what I would regard as a right-wing campaign — one in which we offered our right-wing solutions on the economy, public service reform, welfare reform, and public spending, and explained to the public why we believed that our solutions would serve public needs better. All of them were Conservato-phobic campaigns, specifically designed to try to prevent the public from seeing what Conservatives were really interested in or really believed, built upon the premise that true Conservatism could not win.
We have no idea whether truly Conservative campaigns could have won any of those General Elections, because we never tried. We do know that being evasive, failing to engage with the main issues of public concern, and pretending to be things you’re not was a losing strategy three times. I put it to Bruce and his supporters in this matter that we might have a little more reason to accept that we must do things their way if we are to win had they ever actually won.
Finally, we come to Bruce’s charge that on the Right we over-simplify. On this I say the following: that questions are difficult is not an excuse for not being clear in how one addresses them; and that a judgement is finely balanced is not an excuse for being indecisive. Conversely, if I express things clearly and propose decisive action, that does not in any way imply that I believe that issues are straightforward or that addressing them is easy. Bruce confuses the luxury of the labyrinthine rambling tea-room debate with needs required for political action. The man of action recognises the complexity and the difficulties and the dangers. Then he makes a call, sticks with it, and forgives himself if it goes wrong. A leader does not evade the burdens of power by saying how hard it is to decide. Only pundits get to do that.