Congratulations on your appointment as the co-Chairman of the Party. Though you may not have greeted the move by whooping with joy and punching the air. If so, the explanation may lie in that two-letter qualifier before “Chairman: “co”.
Under David Cameron, and then again under Boris Johnson, the Party leader appointed as co-Chairman a trusted ally from outside elected politics. During the Cameron era, this was Andrew Feldman (who at one point was Chairman solely); under Johnson, it is Ben Eliot. And the non-politician is the one who is really in charge, given his closeness to the Leader, chairing the Party Board. At least to date.
But if you are disappointed not to have stayed in your own department, at Culture, or to make the move to Education that some of us expected, you’ll be too professional to show it. Nonetheless, you’ll be apprehensive. And no wonder.
ConservativeHome’s monthly survey of Party members may help to explain why. It held up well during 2019’s leadership election as a guide to events and, coincidentally or otherwise, the former Cabinet members dismissed during last week’s shuffle tended to be those lingering at the bottom of our Cabinet League Table.
We’ve had a look back at past results, which show that two out of the last three elected politicians who served as Chairman or co-Chairmen fell at some point into negative ratings: Patrick McLoughlin and Brandon Lewis.
Feldman himself did too during his period as sole Chairman. A third MP, Grant Shapps, hovered near the bottom of the table during his co-Chairman spell. And there is more to why than bad general election results. After all, Lewis wasn’t in place for an election, and Feldman was one of the architects of David Cameron’s surprise win in 2015.
CCHQ seems somehow to mean trouble. The Mark Clarke imbroglio was the case of Feldman’s table fall (then a record drop – though it has nothing on some that have happened since). Brandon Lewis’ plunge was triggered by the Boris Johnson burka row.
James Cleverly indeed co-presided over a successful election, and was the exception to the Curse of CCHQ, moving about in the top ten with a emphatic approval rating. We believe there was more to his rating than the 2019 win. In a nutshell, the exigencies of delivering Brexit rallied the pro-Leave Tory activists, pre and immediately post December 2019, behind Johnson in a way not seen since.
Amanda Milling’s cause wasn’t helped by having no local elections last year, and the successful ones this year then made next to no difference. Then came the by-elections: one good (Hartlepool), one bad (Chesham & Amersham and one ugly (Batley & Span).
In short, your arrival at CCHQ concides with the end of the pandemic, fingers crossed, and a return to something like normal. The week before last, that meant the incoherent health and social care plan. Last week, a savagely effective reshuffle. This week, Ministers denying that the lights will go out this winter, and millions of people facing higher electricity bills. Events, dear Oliver, events.
It’s tempting at this point to chunder out reams of variable advice – about cheaper conference venues; more transparent candidate selection; greater democratic accountability – and so on. All this site’s greatest hits, or at least favourite tunes.
Or else to reproduce the ideas that Cleverly floated on this site before he became co-Chairman, when he suggested that the Party could learn from Candy Crush. Ditto our columnist Robert Halfon, later a Party Deputy Chairman himself, who wrote that the Conservatives should be “more like a modern trade union than just another branch of a Nectar Card” (in the sense of offering services to members).
But you will be seized by the possibility of the next general election coming within two years – and appreciate, none better, that Boris Johnson has sent you, with your technocratic skills and organisational experience, to deliver a second big win.
To this end, you will, if you’re as smart as we think you are, turn first not to that election (crucial to Britain, the Party and you though it is) than polls which could happen in the meantime. Yes, we mean by-elections. Our look at the three listed above found that they had in common an absence of inherited data and a shortage of voluntary workers.
So you will doubtless have been on WhatsApp to the Chief Whip to push him about where he thinks future by-elections might be, and be planning to put your best teams in early in the event of any being called.
Hartlepool worked partly because of the Ben Houchen effect: local voters thought they’d like a bit of that. It will tax your ingenuity to conjure up equivalents elsewhere. Parliamentary candidate selection must take into the possibility of a 2023 poll. Then there is the question of personnel.
When the Conservatives are in office, the best media and policy staff tend to move into government as SpAds. You will be thinking about upping its social media game (and perhaps your own) and getting the best available team in early.
Lynton Crosby was in CCHQ before the 2015 election long enough to ensure that the pig didn’t have to be fattened on market day, as he likes to put it, leaving plenty of time for him to throw dead cats on tables. Whoever’s in charge – Crosby or Isaac Levido or someone else – needs to start coming in regularly soon, if cats are not to be fattened and pigs thrown on tables by mistake.
Penultimately, a word about the members. This site is not, repeat not, “the voice of the grassroots” – ConHome speaks for no-one except itself. But our members’ panel and its returns are suggestive.
Six years ago, it found that 86 per cent of members wanted the power to directly elect at least some of the Party Board; that 61 per cent wanted to elect the Chairman of the Board, and that 54 per cent believed the post of Party Chairman should elected by the membership. We will re-run the questions soon.
Not least because there may have been a shift of perspective. No less than a third of the panel recently declared that members have about the right amount of control over how Party money is spent (i.e: almost none).
To be sure, half of it said that members don’t have enough control, but may well be that a substantial slice of the membership is happy with its lot. Though our sense is that the wider membership, like our panel, is far less deferential to the leadership than it was. (Johnson’s own rating in our survey isn’t anything to write home about.)
One last thing. You won’t make a habit of rubbing Ben Elliot up the wrong way. All the same, you should push to co-chair the Board. To make an impact, you must wield authority.