UK Politics

Evening Standard Column: Tories must stop navel-gazing and take the fight to Labour

5 Oct 2017 at 22:51

I wrote this article on Monday evening for publication as the main ‘Op-Ed’ article in the Evening Standard on Tuesday.

So, there I was, sitting between Theresa May and Andrew Marr on Sunday morning, waiting for Marr to open his show. I was there to do the paper review with Polly Toynbee. Theresa May faced an altogether more challenging task – surviving a half hour grilling. The opening titles started. Marr looked at the camera. “The papers say she’s a broken woman and she has to stand and fight or surrender office to her critics,” he said, thereby setting the tone for the whole Tory conference. And then he followed up witheringly. “Happy birthday, Prime Minister.” Hashtag awkward. I didn’t know where to look.

At party conferences journalists tend to act in concert. They become a herd, looking to confirm a narrative that they have developed between themselves. Perish the thought they should talk to actual conference goers. That would never do.

The narrative at this year’s Conservative conference is that Theresa May is in deep trouble, Boris Johnson is unsackable (but deserves to be, nevertheless) and Jacob Rees-Mogg is an interesting little diversion.

The truth is somewhat different.

It’s true that there’s little excitement at this conference. The atmosphere, if such a thing can be defined. is decidedly muted. The conference hall is sometimes half empty, but that’s because Conservative conferences tend to be rather tedious nowadays, with little meaningful debate from the floor. I can’t remember the last time I actually went into the conference hall.

This event in Manchester is not a conference, it’s a rally. The trouble is that many of the senior politicians addressing the party faithful are too boring to knock a rhetorical skin off a rice pudding, let alone galvanise a genuine standing ovation – Ruth Davidson, excepted, naturally.

This conference should be an opportunity for the Tories to demonstrate they know how to defeat Labour and take the fight to Jeremy Corbyn. Instead it runs the risk of becoming a giant exercise in naval gazing and superfluous leadership speculation.

If the Tories want to win again – and listening to some of the Cabinet you could be forgiven for wondering if they do – they need to stop the schoolboy games. I was told by one broadcaster who has interviewed the prime minister in recent weeks that he received several texts from cabinet ministers suggesting lines of questioning. And they weren’t meant to be helpful to Theresa May. What utter shits.

The correct answer to the question: ‘Do you want Theresa May to lead the Conservatives into the next election?’ is ‘yes’ if you’re a Cabinet minister. If Michael Gove can say the word without hesitation or deviation, why couldn’t Sajid Javid? Instead he protested that his interview had overrun.

Unlike some of her more shifty colleagues, Theresa May is, above all, loyal to her party. She knows the carnage that would be wrought if she did what she must surely want to do, and sack those who continue to brief against her and drop poison into the ears of very receptive journalists.

Some senior Conservative ministers seem to have a collective death wish. They learn nothing from political history, which tells us that divided parties do not win elections.

The Prime Minister is going nowhere. She may not be at ‘peak May’ at the moment, but she knows the Tories need a leadership election like a hole in the head. She’s lucky that there is no King or Queen over the water who could be confident of ousting her. She’s also lucky that Conservative donors are still largely supportive. Theresa May apparently made a rousing speech to the party’s National Convention on Sunday, and several who were there have told me that if she performs like that tomorrow, when she stands before her party to close the conference, she’ll be OK.

It’s time for the Tories to stop licking the wounds inflicted by the election. No amount of naval gazing will help them. There are four and a half years to go until the next election has to be held. That’s plenty of time for them to regroup and take the fight to Labour.

The hubris displayed by Labour in Brighton last week may come back to bite them. They think they’ve already won the next election. Theresa May experienced a very sudden decline in her fortunes at the election. Four years are a long time in politics. Who’s to say the same thing won’t happen to Jeremy Corbyn at some point?

The voluntary party needs to be reformed from top to bottom. A new party pressure group, the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, was launched yesterday. It needs to succeed. The days of the great and the good running the upper echelons need to be banished forever. The party needs a new chairman – someone who can both enthuse the activists, who has ideas about how to recruit new supporters, not just members, and someone who has the organisational and campaigning skills to revitalise the party’s headquarters. And also someone who can totally revamp the party’s conference and give it a sense of purpose. Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis is that man.

But it’s not all about turning around the party’s fortunes, it’s also about taking the philosophical and ideological fight to Labour. Theresa May started that process last week with a long overdue speech defending capitalism and free markets. Philip Hammond followed suit yesterday. In many ways the battles of the 1970s and 1980s are going to have to be refought. It’s Socialism v Freedom: The Sequel. Just when you thought it was safe…

Margaret Thatcher thought she had vanquished socialism. She regarded Tony Blair as her greatest creation, but all politics is indeed cyclical. The question now is this: Can Theresa May articulate the same kind of defences of freedom, free markets and capitalism that Margaret Thatcher did to such great effect? Her speech tomorrow needs to provide an answer to that question.

The original article was published here.

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