Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
What a s**t-show. More than 1300 seats lost. Over a thousand hard-working councillors out on their ear – not for the most part because of anything they did wrong, but because of a disastrous national situation. We haven’t just lost councillors, but also a huge activist support network in the shape of their friends and families. Our grassroots operation, already weakened, has been further damaged and is now on life support.
Our failure to deliver Brexit, broken promises to properly address burning social injustices, our continued Party disunity and a lack of strong leadership brought about this disaster.
It was compounded by the incomprehensible decision to sack the Defence Secretary on the eve of the local elections. I spent much of Thursday telling at the Harlow polling stations. I lost count of how many voters came up to me asking: “What on earth is going on?” I have no idea as to the true story re Huawei et al, but why on earth did this need to be decided, in full media glare, just a few hours before the polling stations opened?
After a couple of days of quiet during which we were able to concentrate on local issues like lower council tax and waste collections, Number 10, in full bloodlust, chose to ignore the thousands of councillors and unpaid volunteers who were fighting for the very soul and survival of the Conservative Party. Creating such a self-indulgent drama was an utterly selfish decision from an utterly selfish Number 10 machine. Do they even care about the future of the Party?
Some spinners have responded to these results by comparing them to those of 2015 or even by saying Labour did pretty badly and should be advancing. Others have said that this is not like the run-up to 1997, because Jeremy Corbyn is unpopular. This is entirely the wrong way to respond to what has occurred.
In Harlow, we bucked the national trend and kept all of our council seats (with decent majorities) thanks to hard-working councillors and a good campaign. Yet, make no mistake, there is a tidal wave of anger in my constituency – as there is across the country – over the crass failure to deliver Brexit. Failing to leave on 29 March has caused the Conservatives untold damage. As a Party, we just have to get Brexit over the line.
Second, it is true that Corbyn lost seats, but he also did badly in local elections in the run up to the 2017 election. If Labour sorts out its position on Brexit, then its voters in the North could return to the Labour fold. If Corbyn goes and is replaced by someone like Angela Rayner, that is likely to bring its voters back home. Their message on austerity still resonates with working-class voters struggling with the cost of living and fatigued with cutbacks in local government and public services.
Third, the new Brexit Party represents a tsunami in terms of political disruption. If their candidates had been standing in the local elections, the Conservatives would have probably lost double the number of councillors. This Brexit Party is not the UKIP Party of old. Nigel Farage has matured, and has some serious and credible Euro-Parliamentary candidates. In just a couple of weeks, they have 85,000 paying members. In a few months, as things stand, they will probably leapfrog over our membership numbers. If they stand at the general election and we haven’t left the EU – or there is a second referendum – the chances of change in Westminster is huge. And why is it that the Conservative Party cannot produce anything like the quality social media content of this new political Party?
Fourth, Conservatives have to realise that the reason behind the relative success of Liberals and Greens was not down to some huge enthusiasm for Remain. It was because these parties simply represented the best way of delivering a protest vote against the Government and Opposition, largely for the abject failure to deliver Brexit.
So the stakes are huge. We are heading towards a 1997-type defeat unless we make fundamental and radical changes to our Party machinery and to our policies and deliver, as instructed, a good Brexit.
At present, we have an array of leadership candidates – all of them talented, but busy holding a beauty parade. Sometimes it appears that the field in the leadership stakes rival in terms of numbers a Grand National line up. Yet, surely – at the risk of mixing metaphors – all these potential runners are surely putting the cart before the horse? What we Conservatives should be doing in response to last Thursday is asking what is Conservatism for? What should we do to get Brexit done? How do we address the deep social injustices in our country? How do we cut the cost of living? How do we build an Apprenticeships and Skills Nation? What do we do to ensure more affordable housing? Let’s get a debate and establish some real Conservative policies on these difficult questions before we decide who our next leader should be. And, whilst we are at it, we should be contacting all those defeated councillors saying, “Sorry”.