The actions of the government in response to the pandemic merit our support
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson takes part in a videoconference with European Union chiefs in London, Britain, on June 15, 2020 | PA Images
Be it Covid, Brexit or the levelling up agenda, our party must continue to uphold Conservative principles in response to whatever challenges face the nation
Had I been asked a year ago to define modern Conservative principles, individual freedom, personal responsibility and fiscal prudence would have come very high on my list. I probably would not have even mentioned respect for our institutions and the rule of law, regarding them as axiomatic. More on them later. Since then the world has changed. And in response a Conservative government has introduced unprecedented restrictions on individual freedom, has opted for punitive legislation rather than relying on personal responsibility, and has increased our national debt to levels that would have horrified its predecessors. How can these measures be reconciled with Conservative principles?
There are some who would contend that they can’t. But the Conservative party is a coalition. It contains within it those who prioritise the need to foster free markets and a so-called small state, and those who have always argued for more extensive government intervention to remedy the flaws in free markets.
There are those who now argue that the current restrictions constitute an intolerable infringement on personal responsibility and family life; and others, a majority, who think that, however undesirable they may be, they are regrettably necessary to protect lives in the face of this pandemic.
The genius of the Conservative party has been its ability to strike a balance between conflicting views
The truth is that the genius of the Conservative party has been its ability to strike a balance between these conflicting views and to find a pragmatic response to whatever challenges face the nation at different times. Of course that pragmatism should be grounded in the principles to which I’ve referred, but a degree of flexibility has always been there.
So, on that basis, I reach the conclusion that the actions of the government in response to the pandemic merit our support. It is easy to lose sight of the novelty of the threat to our lives and the magnitude of the challenge it poses, a challenge far greater than any faced by the governments in which I served.
It is easy to lose sight of the difficulty of finding the right response when presented with conflicting objectives and advice. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it will become clear that mistakes were made. That is inevitable. But it seems to me that the government deserves the benefit of any doubt. And exactly the same considerations apply to the economic measures taken by the chancellor, which seem to me to be absolutely necessary.
I’m afraid that quite different considerations apply to the provisions in the Internal Market Bill which seek to renege on the Withdrawal Agreement signed by the present government less than a year ago.
I rarely quote the president of the European commission, but then I imagine that Ursula von der Leyen rarely quotes Margaret Thatcher. But Lady Thatcher was right when she said: “Britain does not break treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world and bad for any future treaty on trade.”
What has been done is done. I hope it will never be repeated.
Beyond the current crisis, I am sure the government will pursue its levelling up agenda. I have always been rather bemused by the notion that one body of opinion within the party has appropriated the mantle of One Nation. Surely all Conservatives have wanted the best outcome for the whole nation?
But it is undeniable that, in the past, the geographical basis of our support has often created a contrary impression. It is Boris Johnson’s singular achievement that the demolition of the Red Wall has made it easier for the perception to reflect the reality.
Lord Howard of Lympne is a Conservative peer and former Leader of the Opposition 2003-05