Mon, 27 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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For the sake of the country, we cannot afford to get our next leader wrong

4 min read

When I called on the Prime Minister to resign in May, I did so on the basis that trust – the most important commodity in politics – would continue to be substantially damaged all the while Boris Johnson remained in post.

His management of the events that have followed has only reinforced that view, and is case enough of why a swift transition, not a long drawn-out swansong, is now required.

Inevitably, focus has already turned to who will succeed him and how we rebuild the Conservative Party - and more importantly, restore the reputation of the country - after the unedifying and frankly embarrassing psychodrama of recent days. Writing as someone who isn’t in any of the campaign camps that are swiftly assembling, here are a few thoughts from a humble backbencher. 

The flagrant disregard for our constitutional norms, bordering on Trumpian iconoclasm at times this week, has damaged the health of Parliament

First, while it should always be a key consideration, trust and integrity will be the forefront issue in the forthcoming election. That can take many different forms, but of most immediate concern is the need for the successful candidate to instil confidence that they will lead with integrity, embody good governance, and deal with matters of impropriety swiftly (and without fear or favour). That shouldn’t need to be said, and it’s a damning indictment on the incumbent that it does, but the flagrant disregard for, and shameless undermining of, our constitutional norms, bordering on Trumpian iconoclasm at times this week, has damaged the health of Parliament. That must be put right as a matter of urgency.

We must return to grown-up, calm and consensual politics, driven by evidence-led, fiscally sound policy rather than the populist, reactionary, soundbite skewed approach that has become increasingly common during this recent period of drift. That requires real drive and conviction of purpose, a willingness to govern, not just campaign, and a long-term strategic vision that both MPs and the public can invest in. It also means being humble, not overpromising, and being clear and upfront about the challenges ahead of us – of which there are many.

Not everybody can be pleased all the time, and difficult decisions will be needed. As Mario Cuomo, the New York Governor, once famously remarked, “you campaign in poetry and govern in prose.” After so much upheaval, I’d firmly opt for the structure and steady consistency of the latter over the unpredictable flourishes of the former, something that’s been sorely lacking under the current administration. We need a more normal – and dare I say it, duller – state of affairs.

Whichever of my colleagues is successful should also prioritise healing the divisions in the Conservative Party. Being such a broad church – which in my opinion, is a major strength – makes some friction unavoidable, but not fatally so. Staying well clear of irresponsible culture wars and broadening the base of government – where people are promoted because of their experience and skillsets, not their blind loyalty – and which better reflects the make-up of the Party, would be a sensible way forward.

Finally, our future prime minister must have the competence, gravitas and nous to steer us through a plethora of difficulties, at home and abroad. Standing up to the likes of Presidents Putin and Xi, while at the same time dealing with our friends in the EU deftly but firmly so that we can resolve the current impasse and reset relations, will be no easy task. In my judgement, it requires someone with ministerial experience who understands the machinery of government. 

There is no such thing as a perfect leader. Public apathy and mistrust is sky-high and the electorate, quite rightly, will ruthlessly judge us on our choice of who takes over. For the sake of the country, we can’t afford to get it wrong.


Sir Robert Neill is the Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst.

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