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Mon, 27 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Tories Are Desperate To Offer "Hope" As Party Moves On From Boris Johnson Era

(Alamy)

6 min read

Moderate Conservative MPs are keen to find new ways to offer "hope" to voters as the chaotic hold former prime minister Boris Johnson has over the party finally seems to have abated.

Johnson's departure comes at a particularly low point for government, with MPs worrying that this week's bump in interest rates intended to curb inflation will send mortgages soaring and act as the final nail in the coffin on their chances of winning the next election. Labour has been leading in the polls since late last year and is now more than ever expected to enter government in 2024. 

Veteran Tory MP Damian Green told PoliticsHome he sees the moderate One Nation Conservative group which he chairs as the "true Thatcherites", and has urged MPs to look to the centre-right in its efforts to forge a credible future for the party. 

Last week the Partygate saga reached its conclusion when the privileges committee's report, which found that Johnson knowingly misled the House on what he knew about lockdown parties in Downing Street, passed comfortably through parliament.

Just seven MPs voted against the report in an act of solidarity with the former prime minister, while 354 MPs, including 118 Conservatives, voted to support the report. 225 MPs abstained. Johnson resigned ahead of the release of the report in order to defuse its recommended 90 day suspension and withholding of a parliamentary pass.  

"You will observe that many, many of the 118 Conservatives that voted for the privileges committee report were One Nation Conservatives," Green noted. 

"Because we think that propriety in government is is a virtue in itself, and its that sort of preserving institutions that we respect is also important.

"So we thought that the parliament has set up this process, it should be supported."

Green said it is now important that Conservatives get the message across to voters that "better times" lie ahead post-Johnson. 

"We need clearly to start giving people some hope that better times are ahead and everything needs to feed into that," he continued. 

"It's obviously difficult times – getting inflation down is a precursor to offering tax cuts, and greater prosperity, and greater security, and so on.

"Things have to be done in order – but we need to offer some hope at the next election."

But the idea of a brighter future might seem remote for much of the public facing high inflation, rising interest rates, and stagnant economic growth.

This week's Bank of England decision to increase interest rates for the thirteenth consecutive month by 0.5 per cent to 5 per cent has led many Conservative MPs to call for an intervention by government to try to revive their electoral prospects; Green said that is the wrong approach. 

"I think we should draw the lessons from the Liz Truss government, which is that if the government starts attacking independent institutions, then the markets take fright," he said. 

"That will be absolutely the last thing we want at this stage. So I can understand why no minister would want to criticise the Bank of England at this stage. Confidence is a very important part of getting rid of this current problem."

The Conservatives' standing with the public took a beating at the end of last year as a result of damage inflicted by rolling scandal by Johnson, and Truss' economic antics that ended her tenure in Downing Street after less than two months. 

New polling by Ipsos for the Evening Standard on voter intention released on Friday shows Labour polling at 47 per cent, with the Conservatives trailing behind at 25 per cent. 

Green said it was vital that the party showed it had a "clear plan" for the challenges the country faces if it is to win back the confidence of their voters. While Rishi Sunak has made five pledges for government, it is increasingly doubtful he will be able to deliver them, particularly on ending illegal Channel crossings and halving inflation – in theory bringing down the cost of living – that resonate most strongly with the public. 

Damian Green"It's all of a piece that there are a lot of people who are clearly turned away," said Green.

"I hope its temporarily from the Conservative Party, and that they will be brought back by evidence of competent government – followed by a clear plan for how we get from where we are now, to a position where families feel that their their streets are safe, their economic prospects are good.

"All the sorts of things like traditional Tory virtues."

Green's remarks about returning to "traditional Tory virtues" touch on what he believes the One Nation group of the Conservatives represent, as different factions battle to demonstrate that they best perpetuate the legacy of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who remains revered by most wings of the party. 

"We are in the, what would be historically odd position, of the left of the party – thinking that we are defenders of the Thatcherite flame, in that we think that getting inflation down, is the precursor to all economic good things," said Green.

"And that you can't compromise on that: that has to come first."

Earlier this week Green told PoliticsHome the much sought after tax cuts being called for from various sides of the party had to be done "responsibly" to avoid the mistakes made by the short-lived Truss administration. 

He recalled that Thatcher and her chancellor, Nigel Lawson, resisted tax cuts in the 1980s until the country could "afford" it. 

On Thursday, Sunak all but ruled out tax cuts following the news that inflation had stayed at 8.7 per cent for a consecutive month, and that the Bank of England had increased interest rates by 0.5 per cent to 5 per cent. 

"Borrowing lots of money to do things that sound great isn’t the responsible approach. It’s not going to help anyone in the long run," Sunak told journalists at a press conference in Kent. 

Earlier this month, however, the government had hinted that tax cuts could be included in this year's autumn statement. This week's backtracking is likely to be unpopular with MPs on the right of his party, many of whom see tax cuts as vital to winning the next election. 

Despite all the challenges facing Sunak, though, Green is confident about the abilities of the man tasked with navigating the country through its economic woes. 

"Rishi has the right stuff to do it," he said. "It's just a question of doing it."

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