Former Party Chair Lord Baker on 'the Strange Death of Conservative England'
Former Conservative Party Chairman and cabinet minister Lord Baker questions whether the party's MPs will remain loyal to Boris Johnson following the disastrous recent by-election results.
As a student in the 1950s I read a popular classic, The Strange Death of Liberal England which told of how the Liberal Party, which had shared government with the Tories in the 19th century with such prime ministers as William Gladstone and David Lloyd George, went into decline in the early years of the 20th century and has since then sent only a handful of MPs to Westminster.
I fear we may be at the beginning of The Strange Death of Conservative England. The messages from North Shropshire and Amersham were that Conservative deserters would come back – Wakefield and Honiton show they have not.
Will Tory MPs continue to simply remain onlookers while their ship heads for the rocks under the command of this captain?
The Conservative seats were all farming communities and you have only to listen to Farming Today at 5:45am to hear their anguish, anxiety, and anger – less chicken production and less planting of salads, tomatoes, and cucumbers. The whole farming community is affected – the grain merchants, sellers and servicers of agricultural machinery, vets, and local transport. They did not like Michael Gove’s agricultural policy to turn the countryside into a chocolate-box.
I have a friend in the North who farms 1,000 acres and following Gove’s intervention he is going to cover 600 acres with bird-friendly crops, which means he will produce no food. The cost of seed was £7,000 and after two years he is going to receive £150,000. That’s not a policy for small farmers. If I still represented an agricultural seat, I would consider it to be highly marginal at the next election. We need a strong agricultural minister like Lord Woolton was during the Second World War with his “Dig for Victory”.
Since his election victory in 2019, the Prime Minister has taken the Conservative Party for granted. Boris Johnson should have appreciated that Conservative supporters were still divided over Europe and needed healing, but the Prime Minister does not do healing - he does confrontation, which he does well.
Other ministers have thoughtlessly lost Conservative voters: Jacob Rees-Mogg’s direction to civil servants to go back into the office must have lost us thousands of commuter votes in London; and the Prime Minister’s letter to all civil servants saying they were marvellous, but he was planning to sack several of them – how will they vote Tory?
In his acceptance speech, the new Lib Dem MP for Honiton used the word “decency” which reminded me of Peter Hennessy’s epitaph on Boris Johnson’s premiership, “The Bonfire of the Decencies.”
Many traditional Conservatives have an enormous respect for the rule of law and remember the speeches of that great Tory lord chancellor, Quintin Hogg. For him, lawmakers should not be lawbreakers for where would that end? Whatever one thinks of the Rwanda deal, it is against international law. The government tried to reduce the legal power of the Electoral Commission to regulate political parties; and sought to limit the effect of judicial review essential to protect individual liberty. This was an act of personal revenge by the Prime Minister when the Supreme Court stopped him proroguing Parliament.
The Conservative Party Chair has done the right thing by resigning, and he remains loyal to the Party which has now has two years to regain the trust of the British people. Harold Macmillan did this in 1957 to 59 when the Tory Party was bitterly divided over Suez by spending his first year dining in the House of Commons virtually every night and talking to Tory MPs, and his second year visiting as many constituency associations as he could.
Conservative MPs have been willing to overlook Boris Johnson's character flaws so long as he proved political Heineken - able to reach those parts others could not. But now the Johnson brand has gone flat. His continued presence as Prime Minister risks sinking the Tories. In previous times an honourable captain put the welfare of his ship before that of his own. How times have changed. But will Tory MPs continue to simply remain onlookers while their ship heads for the rocks under the command of this captain?
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