The Conservatives must take a hard look at themselves to find a way forward for the country
It is wildly premature to say that the Conservative Party has suddenly found a formula to avoid retribution from the electorate for a period of governance that has left the United Kingdom anxious and appalled.
In the face of serious challenges, the Conservative Party in government appeared to take the people for granted, indulging in a series of bitter internal arguments, and turning stable governance on its head. With ministers constantly changing, the needs of the country took second place to a drama played out to a disbelieving public, dropping support for the Party to its lowest recorded level – inducing despair from loyalists of integrity like Sir Charles Walker. Only in the reaction to the outrage in Ukraine did successive prime ministers and the determined Ben Wallace show any awareness of the world around them.
He would do very well to apologise for what the Conservatives have put the country through
The genius of Sir Graham Brady in creating a lasting election process and making it possible to avoid another public, divisive contest has thrown the Conservative Party an improbable lifeline. A three-way election would surely have cemented even more firmly into the Party’s current infrastructure the rifts amongst colleagues and groups within, which have so dismayed many of its members.
But this was not to be. For whatever reasons, with MPs even more firmly convinced that Rishi Sunak has what is currently required to meet the challenges facing the UK, both Penny Mordaunt and Boris Johnson dropped out of the contest sparing us all a further week's headlines and, far more importantly, giving an earlier much-needed start to the government Sunak now leads. He would do very well to apologise for what the Conservatives have put the country through and dedicate himself and his government to the needs of the nation first and foremost, regardless of any other party-orientated interests.
Every principal player will be calling for unity and saying virtually the same thing about the need for it. I am willing to be proved wrong, but I am not sure if all the voices you will hear are genuine. For unity often means “we must go forward together on my/our terms”, not ‘”I am willing to compromise my opinions for others”. Divides include the basic approach to economics – the mantra regarding recent financial decisions is not “the economics were wrong” but that it was “too far, too fast”. So, the divide between small state, free-market, tax-cutting colleagues and others appears still very real.
Then there is immigration, with serious disagreements over policy voiced by the former home secretary; planning; levelling up and the unresolved issues relating to Brexit, from untying the knots around the Northern Ireland Protocol to trying to get growth going when our GDP is a constant 4 per cent below where it might be if we had remained, not in the EU, but in the world's largest single market. Though discussion of any negative impact of Brexit is the Tories silent disco.
Not talking about things is not unity. That comes through a hard analysis of choices, and wholehearted agreement on a way forward, involving some cherished ideas being ditched, not grudges half-buried.
It may turn out to be immaterial to the British people when they get a chance to vote; they have memories. But for now, it must be the right thing for the country to give it a chance over the next 18 months – and that ought to be in the forefront of Conservative minds. Some egos are going to need to lie down.
Alistair Burt, former Conservative MP for North East Bedfordshire (2001-2019).
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.