During the last Conservative leadership election, this site supported Boris Johnson, because we believed him more likely to win a workable Conservative majority, and deliver Brexit. He was “not the Prime Minister we deserve. But the Prime Minister we need right now”.
Lord Ashcroft, who writes on this site today, backed Jeremy Hunt, because he thought him more likely to deliver coherent government. “If I were employing one of them to run a big, complicated project – which is what we are doing – I would choose him”.
We were both right.
Which only goes to show that you can’t have everything in politics. But the further the act of leaving the EU recedes, the more 2019’s Tory voters will move on.
There is a sense that with normal life due to resume, or at least something close to it, normal politics is returning, too – a view current among lots of Conservative MPs in the wake of the recent by-elections.
Some of them fear that the loss of Chesham and Amersham means problems to come in the South; and that the non-win in Batley and Spen means the limits of Tory gains in the North are being reached.
This week, the chair of the 1922 Committee’s Executive is up for election. Graham Brady, the incumbent, is being challenged by Heather Wheeler.
With so many MPs absent from Westminster for so much of the time, and a part live, part virtual Commons sitting, it is even harder than usual to assess the intentions of “the most sophisticated electorate in the world”.
All that can be safely be said is that all 107 members of the 2019 intake are eligible to vote, since Parliamentary Private Secretaries can do so, and none of them are yet Ministers.
It would be an exaggeration to claim that they hold the fate of the poll in their hands, but not by much. As they prepare to vote, many will be thinking about the future of the Government, since it shapes the future of the Parliamentary Party, and their own.
Our pennysworth is that the Conservatives are in decent shape electorally. May’s local and national elections are a surer register of the country’s pulse than three idiosynchratic by-elections. And they were just about as good for the Party as they could have been.
The centre-right vote united around the Conservatives. The centre-left one split three ways: Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green (though the last posed the Tories some problems too).
Mainstream left parties in Europe have lost much of their working-class base over immigration and culture. Labour in Britain needs a leader of genius to win back provincial seats while holding its urban ones.
Such an achievement would not guarantee the party recovering in Scotland. Nor would it deliver the further electoral advance needed to win a strong majority.
There’s no evidence to date that Starmer has the flair to go on such an offensive, and seems to have made a strategic choice for the defensive instead – i.e: relying on his opponent to mess up.
This is very far from impossible, but the Prime Minister has a majority of 80, most people don’t think about politics very much, and he has a projection on the same scale thought in a different way to Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
Politico’s poll of polls shows that Labour has not gained a poll lead over the Conservatives in two years. Johnson will want to have the option of an election in the autumn of 2023, and at the moment it’s his to lose.
However, some Tory MPs are asking themselves what the Government is for – other than the funding for more nurses, doctors, police and “investment in science” headlined in the Party’s safety first manifesto (an inevitable choice, given the effect of the 2017 manifesto).
The Queen’s Speech asked more questions than it answered: among them, how the Government intends “to deliver net zero without any pain for taxpayers or consumers”, as David Gauke has put it.
We’re not convinced that Ministers have a plan for growth – and the Budget looked no more convincing on that point a week after delivery than it did on the day itself.
The delivery of Covid vaccines was a reminder that the Government can deliver, and that Johnson himself has an awesome capacity for bouncing back.
But the run-in to the election is at risk of being consumed by rising NHS waiting times. Sajid Javid will need all the energy and brains at his disposal simply to keep afloat.
A few hundred words won’t support a prospectus, but there are five kinds of things that Johnson needs to do if the Government is not to lose the advantage of initiative.
First, campaign for the Union. The election will be on the Prime Minister before he knows it, and with it will come the push for a Scottish independence referendum that could break up the United Kingdom.
The Scottish Conservatives are right to want power to move downwards in Scotland, not merely back to Westminster. But delivering localism in one part of the UK isn’t practicable without delivering it elsewhere: which means more localism in England, too.
Second, make sense of levelling up. It can’t at once mean rebalacing the country in a single Parliament; the start of lots of capital projects in the provinces; and the incremental improvements that Rachel Wolf wrote about in this site recently. Johnson’s big idea needs clarifying.
Third, avoid unforced errors – which takes us back to Net Zero. Bim Afolami was right to suggest on ConHome recently that either the Treasury will have to subsidise all the losers, or Net Zero won’t work politically.
For this reason, we suspect that no government will actually strain to hit to hit the target. But at any rate, we need a policy that will work for the future; not announcements to get Ministers through COP26.
Fourth, find some retail policies as the next election approaches that Starmer can’t nick. For example, none of the parties “own” childcare, which remains politically up for grabs. What about a modernised equivalent of the old child tax allowances?
Finally, start preparing the voters for economic growth to tail off after what we hope will be a stunning Covid bounce-back. There is a limit to what tax rises can achieve: the tax burden is already forecast to hit the highest level since the late 1960s.
Sooner or later, that will mean returning to tighter public spending control and more public service reform – roughly in the aftermath of the election to come.
That’s far from an exhaustive list of challenges, which would include migration, social care, our future relationship with the EU, generational fairness and housing – plus the fractiousness of social media and its consequences.
But it does at least try to think ahead about the challenges of the next few years. During which we may not be able to have our cake and eat it because the cake starts to run out.