If a week is a long time in politics; the last seven weeks seem an age. No doubt millions of words will be written trying to explain how the Tory campaign managed to wipe out the commanding lead with which the party entered the election. Certainly the campaign was too presidential, it was too negative, it failed to focus on the economy. Using the manifesto to float an incomplete and controversial policy on social care that could have been designed to worry the party’s core vote was truly bizarre. I could go on, but the difficult circumstances in which the Conservative Party and the government find ourselves demand not just an honest appraisal of what went wrong but a cool-headed plan for moving forward.
We should also recognise that in spite of all the foul-ups of the campaign, we secured nearly 43% of the vote: the best we have done since 1983. The same vote share was sufficient to propel Tony Blair into government with landslide majorities in 1997 and 2001. However badly we communicated our message, people of sound judgment the length and breadth of the country looked at the hard left leadership of the Labour Party and turned out to vote Conservative. Tory MPs didn’t lose their seats because they failed to get their vote out (they increased it) – they lost because the Labour machine pulled out a new coalition of support. People weary at stagnant wages or students taking a punt on a Marxist Chancellor of the Exchequer finding the money to pay off their loans: our vote went up – but theirs went up more.
So as Theresa May returns to the slog of government with no overall majority, how can we make it work? The first thing we should recognise is that she is doing the right thing. The easy choice would have been for her to quit on Friday morning: but that is not in her nature. The Prime Minister is determined to do her duty and to serve the national interest. That deserves respect. There is no desire amongst Conservative colleagues for a leadership election – and the public would be appalled if instead of getting back to the business of responsible government after the election, we started yet another Tory beauty parade. Secondly, the whole Conservative family must now rally to the colours, there isn’t time for blame or recrimination, there is a job to do and that job falls to us. No other party is in a position to form a government and the public has no appetite for another election. In any case, another election might just produce the same result!
As Chairman of the Conservative Backbench 1922 Committee for the last seven years, I have seen a coalition, a majority government and now a minority administration formed. Always it is a battle to ensure that the party is working together and communicating internally as it should. Our backbench policy committees have worked with ministers and made recommendations for new policy. It has always been desirable to see this improve: in the current circumstances, it is an absolute necessity. The government only commands a majority if it can carry all Conservative MPs with it – and then some from other parties too. In building consensus and deciding what can realistically be achieved, the whips (appointed by the PM) and the 1922 Executive (elected by Conservative MPs) will both be instrumental. There will be no point pushing ahead with legislation for which there is no majority in the Commons.
The era of sofa government is over. No more kitchen cabinets. No more chums. No more tight and exclusive circles. Minority government will mean proper cabinet government. It will also mean that involving backbench MPs and peers from the earliest stages is needed. There will be less legislation and more debate and discussion – those of us who worry that Parliament makes too many laws after giving them too little thought, might find a straw of comfort in this aspect of the current situation. This is especially the case given that the process of leaving the EU will demand so much parliamentary and government time.
The Prime Minister has made a good start. Damian Green, her de facto deputy is an experienced operator, a capable minister and is popular with colleagues too. The appointment of Gavin Barwell (a well-liked and respected colleague from the last parliament) as Chief of Staff both augur well. It is encouraging too that the PM was keen to bring forward a meeting with backbench colleagues so that the planned ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the DUP can be discussed before it is finalised.
Have no illusions. This parliament is going to be tough. Facing the big challenges that we do without a majority in the Commons is fraught with danger, but we will do our damnedest to make it work for the good of our country.
Graham Brady MP