Nick Hargrave: As a Tory moderate, I’ve been tempted to give up on Johnson’s Conservatives. But here’s why I’m sticking with them.
Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.
For all the talk of a new age of populism, many senior Conservatives seem to have fallen for that very Westminster myth of a binary culture war. That the British people fall into two neat camps of Leave and Remain. That both sides foam at the mouth with passionate intensity for these causes. That the country is fraying through this division. That we’re angry and we all hate each other. And that no political party in this country can ever win power again unless it squarely picks a side and tells the other to get stuffed.
Now, of course there is a values divide in our country today on the issue of identity. But if you really think that this trumps everything else in the daily lives of the British people then, frankly, you need to get out a bit more. There is a reason why Holly Willoughby, Gareth Bale and Ed Sheeran have much bigger social media followings than Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson. Only a few years ago, we used to say that the average voter spent just a few minutes each week thinking about politics. Now we argue that it is all-consuming.
Go to any focus group right now, or better still talk to an ordinary voter, and you will find that bemusement trumps bellicosity almost every time. Westminster has gone mad, but most people in the country just want this nightmare to be over – and for politicians to get back to tangible, relatable, deliverable, aspirational, outcomes-based policies that help them and their families live a better life.
We won an election on this platform in 2015 a mere 13 months before that supposed turning point referendum. It is crackers that Conservative MPs are spending more time now talking about free ports and SPS checks on agri-foods – than they are about making childcare cheaper for the parents of zero to two-year olds.
If you are a Tory – an anti-No Deal MP, a Cameron-era member or a wavering Lib-Dem switcher – who yearns for a return to this moderate normality then there are more reasons to be optimistic about the future of the party than you might think. The party leadership has done a good job of trying to alienate you since the summer with their words and deeds. But for people still weighing up whether to stay or go elsewhere, I still believe there is a clear case for sticking with the Conservative Party in the years ahead.
First of all, contrary to appearances, the Prime Minster is actually on your side of the argument. He backed Leave in 2016 because he wanted to position himself with the party membership for the future – rather than because of a neuralgic obsession about our customs relationship with the EU. He ran a leadership campaign aimed squarely at the party’s Brexit-centric voting shareholders because he knew that was the only route to Number 10. But as well as being a political opportunist, Boris Johnson has always had an intuitive grasp of the public mood. As said recently, once we leave the European Union he wants to focus with “an absolute laser like precision on the domestic agenda”.
These are not the words of a man who is looking to spend the next decade grappling with dramatic divergence or Government by Operation Yellowhammer. He knows there aren’t very many votes in it. He patently wants to get a withdrawal deal done, go to the country with a sensible retail domestic platform, win a decent majority – and then use that mandate to put trade talks in the second tier, minimally divergent in the short-term box they belong.
All the while he will focus on schools, hospitals, housing and crime as domestic priorities instead. For those who say this is impossible given the pressure from his backbenchers – Canada good, Norway bad – I would only say that it is amazing what a healthy majority can do for your powers as Prime Minister. And who knows what the EU itself will look like in five years’ time.
Second, the prospect of leaving the European Union with a deal by October 31 – or shortly after with a brief technical extension- is under-priced at the moment. It is the least politically difficult for Johnson of all of his options now.
The UK and the EU27 are also less far apart on the substance than suits either side to say. There is a way through on the much obsessed backstop that puts lipstick on the original proposal of limited future divergence in the Irish Sea. So much of the reason that this was a non-starter for Theresa May was that she knew she would never fight another election and her future was bound with the favour of the DUP. That is not true for Boris Johnson in quite the same way. That is before you get to the logical argument that Northern Ireland’s history since its construction in 1921 has been based on evolving and imaginative constitutional flex – that recognises the profoundly unique circumstances of the past.
Third, with a bit of strategic direction in the 2020s, it is perfectly possible to make the Conservative Party’s membership more reflective of the country at large. This in turn has an impact on what front rank politicians in the party end up saying and doing. Boris Johnson beat Jeremy Hunt by a margin of 45,497 votes in the last leadership election. The numbers involved are not enormous. If you want the next candidate of moderation to overturn that deficit then that is the equivalent of recruiting 70 odd supporters per constituency in England, Scotland and Wales in the intervening period. At £2.09 a month by direct debit, with minimal obligations for boots on the ground activism, that is a pretty sellable insurance policy for the future of your country.
Finally – and simply – the perfect should never be the enemy of the just about bearable in a first-past-the-post electoral system. This is not a time to take any chances. If you don’t think Jeremy Corbyn running the fifth largest economy in the world is a good idea then your vote at the next election should be exercised wisely.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that I agree with everything the Conservative leadership have said and done in recent weeks. It would also be dishonest to claim that the thought of voting Liberal Democrat did not flicker momentarily as we’ve veered towards knuckle-head, pound-shop Orbanism – rather than the finest traditions of Conservatism. But for all that noise, I am not sure the task of recapturing those traditions is as out of grasp as commonly supposed. That’s why I’ll be voting Conservative at the next general election and retaining my membership; I’d thoroughly recommend you do too.
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