Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
What do my colleague Christopher Chope, the Times columnist Matthew Parris and the Lewisham East by-election have in common? No, this isn’t a strange Have I Got News For You picture round.
Answer: all three should send big flashing red warning signals to the top of the Conservative Party.
Until Friday, the split in the Conservative Party was mainly Brexit-related. But by objecting to a Private Members Bill to outlaw upskirting, Christopher has managed to create a new fault line – by uniting the Party (and pretty well everyone else) against him, since Conservative MPs across the length and breadth of the it were appalled by his behaviour.
It says it all, really, that an older male Tory MP should object to outlawing a sexual crime which makes use of twenty-first century technology. And cries of “but he objects to most PMBs as ways of making new laws” won’t explain away this reputation-damaging episode.
It also proves to everyone beyond the Westminster bubble that the work so many of us are engaged in, and have supported – to bring the Conservative Party into the modern era – remains uncompleted.
And that work is further being undone by Brexit. Matthew Parris may well be right, in his column this weekend in the Times, that the current technicalities about meaningful votes and drafting of amendments to be debated in Parliament are of no interest to those outside Westminster. But if some of us just shrug our shoulders, and allow those who want a hard no-deal Brexit to get their way, unchecked, then the consequences will be noticed by the voters – and every Conservative is likely to pay a price at the next election. Matthew should know that if we don’t take a stand against the hard Brexiteers, then we won’t even get to the position of being able to consider the potential of his Andy Street/Ruth Davidson combo as a possible future Tory leadership team.
Christopher spent the early part of last week calling for ‘rebel’ MPs to have ‘direct’ disciplinary action taken against them. If our offence is to try to ensure the Conservative Party doesn’t entirely undermine our hard-won reputation for getting the economy back on track, then I plead guilty. (By the way, it is not unknown for Christopher to vote against the party whip.)
And the Lewisham East by election? Unsurprisingly, Labour held the seat. The real news is that the Liberal Democrats leapfrogged us into second place, and that their vote share increased by 20 per cent. At last year’s general election, we had 23 per cent of the vote share in the seat and the Lib Dems had four per cent. Last week, our vote share fell by nine per cent, and our vote share was 14 per cent. The Lib Dem vote share was 25 per cent. Lewisham voted heavily to Remain in 2016. It seems unlikely that the Conservatives will win Lewisham East in the near future (though we did so during the 1980s), but the real lesson is that wavering voters in London who aren’t voting Labour aren’t voting Conservative either.
The Conservative Party doesn’t have a majority in the Commons. In 2022, we won’t be in the position of being able to afford to lose seats. We have to gain seats across the country, as well as hold on to our marginals.
The warning, as expressed by Parris is that our “reputation for heart is taking a pounding and (more worrying as this was always [our] selling point) [our] reputation for head has tumbled too”. The electorate might forgive us, Christopher – but only if we help keep them in work, create the conditions to allow wages to grow, stick to this weekend’s commitments to invest in the NHS and social care, continue to raise school standards and get the trains running again.
And we can only do those things if we can afford to pay for them. And we can only make the case for them if make it clear that those in our Party who confirm every prejudice the public ever had about the Conservatives are not, in fact, all that the Conservatives have to offer.