David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
Harold Wilson sought to make the Labour Party the natural party of Government, but failed. Years later, Tony Blair sought to fulfil the same ambition and – with the three successive general election victories – came closer to success.
Yet just over eight years after he stood down, the Labour Party elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. As Blair pointed out about himself, he had been ‘the person in power taking difficult decisions’ whose face was ‘on the placard’ whereas ‘Jeremy is the guy with the placard, he’s the guy holding it. One’s the politics of power and the other’s the politics of protest.’
Labour has never quite escaped the politics of protest. In part, this is a product of its history. The Labour Party was formed to represent the interests of trade unions and their members. It exists to represent one section of society, not to govern all of society.
There is also a question of temperament. As a party of the Left, it has tended to attract dreamers and idealists who value ideological purity and the clean conscience available to those who do not have to take responsibility. It has always been a party for the placard-holders.
The Conservative Party, in contrast, exists for the purpose of being in power. One way or another, it has been in office for 67 of the last 100 years and, as such, can claim to be the natural party of government. It is a party capable of obtaining and retaining power but also a party changed by the experience of power.
Its reputation as the party of government has helped it reassure small ‘c’ conservative voters; the greater Ministerial experience attained by Conservative politicians has given the party greater credibility in contrast to its opponents; a track record in Government also demonstrates a willingness to make tough decisions – such as the economic reforms of the 1980s or 2010s – which helps win the public’s respect, if not its affection.
There are disadvantages, too. The Conservative Party has been seen as not just the party of government ,but the party of the establishment. When social mores change, it can look outdated and the defenders of privilege, as it did in the 1940s, ‘60s and ‘90s. And given that to govern is to choose, some of its choices will displease. Policy decisions involve trade-offs, sometimes very difficult ones. In government, one cannot escape that.
There are certain attributes necessary for a party to acquire and retain a reputation as natural party of government. Of course, it has to obtain power. But it must also demonstrate and value administrative competence; it must be able to live in the world as it is, not as it would like it to be; it must be willing to take tough decisions on the basis of a realistic understanding of the consequences; it must recognise that what brings immediate popularity does not always translate into long term electoral success; it must apply its principles in a manner that appreciates the practical implications in changing circumstances. Fundamentally, it should be a party that feels much more comfortable – in Tony Blair’s phrase – with the politics of power, not the politics of protest.
How comfortable is the Conservative Party now with the politics of power? It is tempting to answer this question by focusing on Boris Johnson. He was elected as leader of the party not on the basis of his record as a successful administrator (most Conservative MPs, including many who voted for him, would have said that his Ministerial record was the least distinguished of all the contenders), but as the candidate who could marginalise Nigel Farage and reunite the Leave coalition.
This proved to be a correct assessment, at least for the moment. But Johnson’s approach to Brexit has long been to ignore the hard questions – the trade-offs between sovereignty and market access or the Northern Ireland border – with a ‘have your cake and eat it’ optimism and mutually contradictory promises.
At the time of writing, he is in the uncomfortable position of having to make a choice on a deal that will mean, either way, at least some of his promises are broken. If, after months of hesitation, he goes for a deal – and I hope he does – he will face the fury of sovereignty purists who have never come to terms with the reality that free trade deals necessarily involve some constraints on what a country can do.
The Prime Minister also faces a challenge to his authority on Covid-19. The crisis has been testing for him, and he has looked ill-suited to the challenge. But his relative caution on restrictions reflects the realities in front of him. It suggests that he has looked at the evidence and concluded that if you go too far in loosening restrictions, the virus very quickly spreads. This would not only cause many deaths but also damage the economy because of voluntary changes in behaviour. It is hard to imagine any of his predecessors reaching a different conclusion in the circumstances. In this sense, Johnson is acting like a conventional Prime Minister.
Conservative MPs, however, are not giving him the benefit of the doubt. In some cases, there are legitimate constituency concerns but in other cases, the laudable desire to protect individual liberty has resulted in a willingness to engage in wishful thinking.
Some have fallen for a succession of optimistic but wrong predictions – ‘the virus is burning itself’, ‘the new cases are just false positives’, ‘higher cases won’t necessarily mean higher deaths’, ‘lockdowns do not work’ – that get discredited before moving on to the next argument.
This is partly ideological. It is also partly about the changing nature of being an MP. Members of Parliament are increasingly seen as local champions first and foremost. They are more inclined to organise themselves into ‘Research Groups’ that act as parties within parties, content to define themselves by contrasting themselves against the Government rather than as being part of the Government.
It is less about being part of a team that seeks to govern the country but more about representing particular viewpoint or constituency. It is less about solving problem; more about taking a stand. It is a change in attitude that makes it harder to accept compromise, to recognise trade-offs, to temper principle with practicality. We have seen this for years in the context of our relationship with Europe; we have seen it increasingly in recent months in the context of Covid restrictions. I suspect we may more of this when it comes to tackling the public finances.
The Conservative Party has become less disciplined and more comfortable with the politics of protest. In some respects, Boris Johnson is a natural leader for such a party – a columnist and controversialist; an insurgent rather than an administrator – but it would be wrong to ascribe the change in the party to him. He is a symptom not the cause, reflecting changing attitudes amongst MPs, party members and many of its supporters. It may still have an appetite to be in office, but the Conservative Party no longer has the temperament of a natural party of government.