Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street Special adviser where he worked for both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works for Portland, the communications consultancy.
Last weekend I experienced the moment no ex-political adviser wants: an email from Tim Shipman at the Sunday Times saying that he had got hold of a “dossier” I had written over two years ago about a potential Conservative leadership candidate, and would I like to comment? The said candidate was of course Boris Johnson and the “dossier” in question focused on a biographical sweep of his life and times, sourced from his biographers and his own prodigious column output.
I had not even thought about the said document for over two years. But the ensuing debate raised a perennial question about whether the past actions and comments of political figures are fair game when it comes to assessing their suitability for high office.
In the tumultuous days of late June 2016, it certainly felt that the life and times of Johnson would be useful ammunition in an upcoming leadership campaign. Not for salacious gossip for the newspapers, but as a robust method of framing the choice for the party’s electorate. Forget the reported personal affairs for a minute (which only formed a minor part of the corpus) – the litany of contradictory statements, the damning verdict of colleagues who knew him best and the track record in shadow ministerial office all felt like promising material.
But if a week is a long time in politics, two years is almost beyond comprehension. The world has changed significantly since I sat on the sofa in my apartment and put in my Amazon Prime orders for everything Johnson had ever written. From the United States to mainland Europe to southeast Asia, time and again we have seen people elected to office who would have not fitted the template of a politician. The vote for Brexit was in many ways an expression of this sentiment too.
This is happening for a reason. Across the democratic world, people are turning away from self-defined moderate, cautious politicians to those of a different hue because of their guttural distaste for the quality of the former.
Donald Trump may break his promises – but so do the competition. Salvini may change what he thinks on an issue on any given day – but so do a lot of politicians when they see the latest polling numbers. Johnson may not always have convincing answers for the geo-political questions of our time – but others in the future leadership cohort are often far too keen on the platitude than the strategy.
So if and when a Conservative leadership election comes in the next 12 months, research dossiers will of course have their place and it’s critical that potential leadership candidates are able to defend their record under pressure. But opposition research works best when you are painting a substantive contrast on issues that voters care about.
Many of the problems Britain has faced since the EU referendum have come from a vacuum in leadership, not just from Number 10 but across the political class. And to my mind, there are four strategic debates any future Conservative leader must form a view on if he or she is to compete with the irresistible tune of the populist.
First, and probably most importantly, how do you bridge the values divide in Britain today? Attitudinal research, not to mention gut instinct, will tell you tell that our country is increasingly divided between different belief systems on how the country should look and operate. ‘Nation state backers’, as I have come to describe them, overwhelmingly voted for Brexit and believe that an increasingly powerful nation state is the best method to deliver more control over people’s lives and a better standard of living in the future. ‘Global co-operators’, for want of a better term, largely voted Remain and believe that increased prosperity will come from an inter-connected world and reducing barriers rather than building them. There are also a decent number of people hovering between these two viewpoints, although that number will likely recede over time.
Given the demographics involved and their geographical spread in Britain’s constituencies, the Conservative Party will only win a convincing majority if it finds a leader capable of uniting these two values systems. One answer lies in the increasing atomisation of our lives and the disintegration of community. Whether you are a global co-operator in Battersea who spends most evenings glued to your smartphone and don’t know your neighbours , or a nation state backer in Peterborough who has seen your local area change beyond recognition with the influx of low skilled Eastern European migration, many people in Britain today clearly yearn for a stronger sense of community, and validation that they are part of something concrete. A leader who is able to weave this emotional impulse into a political narrative with worked up solutions rather than clichés will be on to something.
The second strategic challenge is how the Conservative Party should talk and act towards business. Are we saying that there is a structural problem where it is too easy for larger, global businesses to work against the spirit of the rules when it comes to tax, treatment of staff and anti-competitive practice – or are we saying that there are just a few bad apples? This is not about splitting hairs, because there are very different implications for what the policy response should be.
Third, what is your view on the relationship between taxation and public services – how are we going to get the Scandinavian levels of healthcare and education that voters are telling us they want? Short of borrowing ever-more money, your options are to raise a greater tax yield (including moving from earnings to wealth), cut expenditure strikingly in areas like defence – or to find a way of consistently growing the economy by more than two per cent per annum no matter what global trends are. All of these options necessitate difficult conversations about future policy direction, but it is impossible to project yourself as a credible leader unless you are willing to have them.
The final challenge is, of course, Brexit. Although we will, God willing, have left the structures of the European Union by March next year, it is likely significant work will still need to be done to crystalise our future relationship with Europe before the next cliff edge in December 2020, when the transition period is due to end. Are we looking for an ‘EEA minus’ deal where we maintain a strong level of economic co-operation with the bloc but have to compromise on full sovereignty? Or are we aiming for a looser deal that will have at least a medium term impact on our economic performance, but more neatly delivers on the verdict of the referendum? There are trade-offs in this debate and they will become more real than theoretical over the next couple of years in terms of jobs, wages and economic growth. With negotiations for the Withdrawal Agreement going to the wire, you are kidding yourself if this choice will be fully made by the time of the next Conservative leadership election.
If and when the next leadership election comes, my advice to budding campaign teams is that the contradictions and scandal attached to your opponents are only part of the puzzle. Crucially, they will only feel relevant if your candidate has also done the work and thinking to make themselves a serious leadership proposition. The future of the United Kingdom should feel safe in their hands. The contrast with your opponents will then be self-evident.