This divided Conservative Party faces a long road back to electoral credibility
In the first couple of weeks of her premiership, Liz Truss thought she was about to drive an intellectual and ideological juggernaut through the brick wall of reality. She soon found out she was in a Mini.
The Conservative Party was a passenger on that fool’s errand. And yet pulling themselves battered and bruised from the steaming wreckage, there is plenty of evidence that many MPs and members have not learned lessons about what brought them to this sorry state.
Consider the latest race to be prime minister. Boris Johnson did not make the ballot, but there were still dozens of MPs willing to laud him as the ultimate campaigner, claiming only he could get the car back on the road.
There is no sign many MPs will accept the leadership of another, least of all Rishi Sunak
This was not only a denial of reality – look at the opinion polls – it was a symptom of the virus that entered the Conservative Party this decade: an obsession with campaigning over governing.
Successful campaigners can split the world into sinners and saints. They reduce everything to binary terms: up or down, black or white, wrong or right.
Great campaigners make the transition to governing, accepting the world as it is – in all its complex, nuanced, messy reality – and not as they wish it to be.
They realise if they are to have any hope of changing the country for the better, they need to have a realistic assessment of things and a robust, but flexible plan to deliver it.
There were dozens of MPs and probably tens of thousands of party members who showed no sign of getting this. They still wanted fantasy over reality. It didn’t result in Boris back in No 10, but it showed that a huge faction of the party isn’t willing to listen, learn or be governed by realists.
This weekend Boris Johnson called dozens of backbenchers, telling them the scandals over wallpaper, girlfriends and parties would be long forgotten come the next election and he would lift them to victory on a cloud of boosterism. Note he didn’t say that he was wrong, or innocent and would be vindicated, just that it would be forgotten. They looked willing to be taken for fools.
A big section of the most successful political party in history needs to accept reality. Johnson caused massive damage by appearing to care only about himself; Truss threw away the trump card of sound money. Both things mean it will be a long road back to electoral credibility.
And yet, many fanatics queued up to tell us, “only Boris can win!” What they missed was that he couldn’t be trusted and blew himself up. There is no sign many of those MPs will accept the leadership of another, least of all Rishi Sunak. Everything he has said about fantasy economics has been vindicated but when you mention his name to many MPs, they dismiss him and say they won’t be loyal.
To make matters worse, the Brexiteers in the party are splitting, like the Judaean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea. There were many farcical scenes at this year’s Conservative Party Conference, including a home secretary dreaming of flights to Rwanda, while the chancellor argued for more immigration. Both claimed the policies were about delivering Brexit.
One wag described being in Birmingham was like being on a plane flying at 30,000 feet when all the engines suddenly cut out.
Conservative MPs are on that plane. If – as look likely – many of them refuse to unite and let someone take control and provide direction based in reality, they will crash into the mountainside of the next general election. Watching the few survivors, onlookers will ask, “why are they still squabbling?” but the country will rightly have moved on.
Craig Oliver, former No 10 director of politics and communications for David Cameron.
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