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Veteran Tory Tells MPs To "Get Their Act Together" And Unite Behind Rishi Sunak

David Lidington was a Conservative MP between 1992 and 2019 (Alamy)

6 min read

Former cabinet minister David Lidington has said that the government and Conservative MPs must "get their act together" and start behaving in the “national interest” rather than sniping at one another if the party is to have any chance of winning this year’s general election.

Before stepping down as an MP in 2019, Lidington held a number of cabinet positions under Theresa May’s premiership, including as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, as well as being in the shadow cabinet between 2002 and 2007. Having served as MP for Aylesbury since 1992, he was a key political player across a period that saw the Conservative Party's fortunes fluctuate considerably.

Giving his assessment of the turmoil that Tories endured last year, Lidington told PoliticsHome that while unexpected events, such as the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, had “made life difficult” for the government, divisions within the party would pose the biggest issue for the Tories in the run up to the general election, which must be called before the end of this year.

“When you have Conservative MPs rallying with each other and briefing the press that they want to replace the Prime Minister in his first year in office, all the public notices is that the Conservative Party is one where the MPs don't seem to like each other very much, so why should we trust them?” Lidington said.

“A party that's divided and squabbling amongst itself is never going to win the confidence of the electorate.”

He argued that voters only want to spend a limited amount of time thinking about politics, and that recently that limited time has been “taken up listening to internal squabbles within the Conservative Party”, rather than hearing the government clearly set out its achievements and objectives. 

“There were some opportunities wasted as a result of indiscipline within the ranks of Conservative MPs that I very much regret,” the former secretary of state continued. 

With the Tories still way behind Labour in the polls, Lidington said the Conservative government must now demonstrate “calm and competent government in the public interest” – and added that both public speeches and briefings by aides should shift focus away from political manoeuvring. 

“I really do think that voters are fed up to the back teeth with stories about policies being adopted and words being spoken for selective political manoeuvring purposes and battles,” he said.

“I just think it's a mistake, even if that is part of it, to put that up in your shop window.”

With concern mounting over whether the conflict in Gaza could spill over into an all-out regional war, Lidington said the UK government must be prepared for further unexpected events in 2024 that could make it more important than ever to maintain consistent policies and messaging.

“But I think all of this also in crude electoral terms depends upon whether Conservative MPs are willing to be led,” he said.

“If the sniping at the leader continues, then the party's electoral fortunes will suffer accordingly. If the Conservative Party decides it does want to win, if they get their act together, then I think there is a chance for, as described by No10, a steep uphill path to victory.”

With voters increasingly cynical over whether politics can enact positive change in their lives, Lidington said he believed the government would not succeed if it tried to pull “white rabbits out of hats”.

“I don't think people will believe it if the PM comes forward saying that he can pull off some magic tricks," he said. 

"Calm, competent government that's demonstrably in the public interest, focusing on the economy, focusing on the health service, those things are absolutely key and showing a steady steady progress towards meeting attainable targets in those areas.”

He added that while Rishi Sunak’s passion for technology and education is clear, he wants to see the Prime Minister set out his goals for those areas with more clarity. The former Cabinet Office minister also urged the government to implement pensions reform that would address what he deemed a “dangerous imbalance between the generations”, stating that he would want to see the government scrapping the controversial triple lock.

“When the people under massive pressure at the moment are young people – in full time work, who still even as a couple struggle to get their first foot on the housing ladder and are paying off student loans in a way my generation never had to do – I do find it impossible to justify the fact that somebody like me who gets a pension and is earning as well still gets a tax-free winter fuel allowance,” he explained.

“At the very least it seems to be those benefits to better off pensioners ought to be taxed in line with our tax personal tax codes. There are changes that could be made that are still fair to pensioners, but actually start to redress what's become a dangerous imbalance between the generations."

"Practical and realistic reforms" such as these, he argued, would be the only way that the Conservatives might still be able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Despite the huge challenges ahead, Lidington said he thinks it is still “all to play for” for the Tories, as he also believes there is “big difference” between now and the months leading up to the 1997 Labour landslide.

“I don't think [Starmer] has the same charisma, the same attraction, as Tony Blair did in 1997,” he said.

“He and the Labour Party are beatable, if my party is able to get its act together.”

Lidington also played down the risk of Reform UK taking Tory votes and insisted that it would be a mistake for the Conservatives to “lurch to the right” in response. 

“You'd find that there would be a shedload of votes lost to the Liberal Democrats in the south-east of England and the West Country and other votes being lost to Labour in constituencies where it is more a straight Conservative-Labour battle.”

The former MP said the same goes for the party’s fortunes if they lose the election: “If you look at historical precedent, heading off to the right is not the way back into government.

“That's part of the reason why the Conservative Party remained in opposition for 13 years of my time in the House of Commons. The Labour Party was able to win three general elections in a row for the first time in British political history."

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