Monday, 13 October 2014

Don't Change the Leader, Change the Operation

The outlook for the three principal party leaders looks pretty bleak at the moment. Despite their best endeavours, the threat from UKIP seems to grow, and their interventions serve only to increase the momentum enjoyed by the political insurgents. Although it is inconceivable that a party would change its leader this close to a general election, the whispers and murmurings in all three parties is becoming increasingly audible.

Yet, as far as the Conservative party is concerned, I am very clear that a change in leader is unnecessary; rather, what we need is a change in the way that the leader and his team conduct itself. David Cameron is not a man to forget the importance of getting our economy sorted out, and he remains the only realistic prospect of securing that new relationship with the European Union so desperately needed. The 2015 general election remains a binary choice: and the Prime Minister is the only credible candidate for No. 10.

But that does not mean that presenting the dangers of the alternative is sufficient in itself. I am clear that we need immediately to see a change in the leadership style, in the language used to communicate, and the empathy and understanding presented to those within the Conservative party family who have become disaffected and distressed by the condescension and detachment – sometimes verging on contempt – from the party’s leadership. We must not forget that it is only by harnessing the support of the aspirational mainstream that we can recover from the defeat at Clacton to win the general election in just seven months’ time.

Perhaps the best illustration that I can offer concerns a conversation that I had with a member of the leadership team shortly before my election to Parliament. Eager to discuss our approach to the party’s supporters arising from a policy announcement, I approached this key frontbencher to ask what consideration had been given to the consequences for those living in council estates, and what should be said when canvassing or visiting pubs. To my astonishment, the response was that he didn’t do canvassing or frequent pubs. In too many respects, the Conservative party leadership had cut itself off from its aspirational voters and their needs, and that was twelve years ago. Without reconnecting with these people, our prospects in 2015 are dangerously imperilled.

And Mr Cameron is fortunate, in that he possesses a wealth of experienced and available talent currently languishing on our backbenches; all he needs do is to make better use of the people that he has got. At the very least, I would hope that a group of between six and eight people with the experience of politics and life beyond Westminster would be urgently created to assist him and the party make a much better job of connecting with those supporters who helped the party be at its most successful in the past. In other words, he needs a backbench council of war, not a small elite group in Downing Street.

This is not talking more about listening. To my mind, the public are weary of politicians promising to listen, only then to carry on regardless. Voters are entitled to get enraged when elected representatives have the temerity to infer that sending a clear message through the ballot box is driven by ignorance, bizarre empty gestures or some other deficiency in them. The party leadership needs to hear the very real concerns of our most important voters: those people fed up with working hard to raise a family whilst others languish on benefits as a lifestyle preference; people frustrated that their streets and communities are increasingly losing the cohesion which binds them together in terms of language, culture and spirit; people angry that the accident and emergency department in their local hospital is full to capacity with people who have not registered with a doctor, and whose use crowds out those with a more legitimate basis to go to hospital; people who watch their children and grandchildren languish on local housing lists whilst other newcomers are hurried into the few available homes. Sadly, it feels like a long time since the Conservative party last spoke the language which resonated with people frustrated and angry with issues such as these; if David Cameron wishes to extend his time in Downing Street, then time is fast running out for him to connect with this core constituency.

In almost every respect, this is the most fundamental problem with the small, insular group surrounding the leadership of the current Conservative party – and the other parties as well, whose collective failure has severed the connection between the government and the governed and brought our political system to the brink of collapse. David Cameron’s inner circle is drawn from a very narrow group with extremely limited life experience, and it is inevitable that this diminishes the breadth of the advice upon which he can draw. Depressingly, not a single one of the three principal party leaders has had to earn their living in the real world, so, in that respect perhaps it is little wonder that they lack understanding and empathy. But the onus is on them to recognise this as a weakness, and be pro-active about mitigating this problem, particularly in the way that they communicate and connect with these voters.

David Cameron needs help, and urgently. I well understand why journalists salivate at the prospect of a vote of no confidence, but even those most enthusiastic for this course don’t expect it to bring him down. A badly-wounded leader is the very last thing that this country needs, and a Labour government is a prospect too painful to contemplate. Treachery against the leader now will only provide a fillip to Labour, and that would be even more counter-productive. We need the party to come together, and, much as the leadership must do the bulk of the leg-work, others must be genuinely included.

The Conservative party leadership has let down its supporters very badly, and I hope that the implications of recent defections and by-election results reinforce in their own minds the imperative to make substantive changes in how they think and speak with our voters. We simply cannot rely upon the inadequacies of the Labour front-bench and its leadership to get us through the next seven months. Unless we change course in the way that we act, think, communicate and do business, that risks being our only hope – and we are staring defeat in the face. But if David Cameron embraces change in the way that he and his team connect with that growing consensus upon which Nigel Farage has drawn, then I for one expect to witness not only the reversal of the UKIP insurgency, but also the resounding defeat of our political opponents. For the sake of our country's future, making that change seems a very small price to pay.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Electoral arithmetic…

Last night’s by-election result in Clacton should arouse deeply disturbing feelings in all Conservatives: the consequences for our country and party are profound.

The march of UKIP is reflected not only in their first electoral success for the House of Commons, but also in the pressure that they now bring to bear in Labour seats, evidenced in the results from Heywood & Middleton. But few will doubt that it is the Conservative party’s prospects in 2015 that are most imperilled by the apparent changing dynamics of British politics.

More than two years ago, I argued that the Conservative party should devote some thought in considering our options for engaging with UKIP. It is too late to do so now, but, if the opinion polls are to be believed, then we are on the cusp of centre-right politics enjoying the support of around half of the electorate. At the precise time that this monumental consensus is within our grasp – with the Conservative party polling around thirty-five per cent and UKIP at about fourteen per cent – the prospect of UKIP success can only be seen as a pyrrhic victory.

Yes, I appreciate that UKIP are drawing their support from a variety of sources – including Labour’s core vote. But many of these voters are frustrated at having been neglected and ignored by the Opposition’s relentless campaign against aspiration. The Conservative party has been at its strongest – and most successful in Government – when it has been able to connect with these people. Surely the greatest totem for Conservative party modernisers should have been to harness the ambitions of these people and elicit their support for a centre-right, ambitious policy agenda.

But my greatest anxiety is for the potential damage to our country. This is no time for government to be ambiguous, and UKIP’s success could create an uncertainty risking destabilising our recovery from the worst recession in decades. It would be a tragedy were the veneer that attracts voters to UKIP to result in imperilling our path to prosperity either through the injection of uncertainty or through assisting a return to government of those who were responsible for exacerbating our economic pain in the great recession. As the economy teeters, we need an experienced and steady hand on the tiller, and a political insurgency could only be harmful.

Ministers are right to respond to last night’s result by highlighting the grave risks of voting UKIP; but that alone will not suffice. We cannot ignore, insult or merely implore those members of the Conservative party family who have left the fold any longer. Coalition has been a long, hard and painful experience: this country needs a strong majority Conservative government capable of delivering an agenda with the broadest possible support.

The Prime Minister is widely regarded as a man very capable of big occasions and major challenges. Given last night’s results, few can doubt that the 2015 general election will be the largest of his political life. The country needs a strong leader, and a determined, stable government. In the context of trends in popular opinion on substantive matters of policy, it is crazy even to contemplate defeat. The Conservative party needs to bring its family back together decisively; and therein lies the political challenge to which we all must now work.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Dampening the flames, not adding fuel to the fire

As Parliamentary debates go, there can be few as profound as those which presage the deployment of British armed forces into action. Friday was no exception.

One of the frustrations of such a major debate is the pressure for all to have their say; inevitably, even with the imposition of time limits there are some who cannot be squeezed into the period available. Such it was for me on Friday.

We need to understand our enemy: they are not really motivated by religion – indeed, they constitute little more than a ragbag of visceral criminals, terrorists and psychopaths. They have abused the tenets of a mainstream religion to justify their need for power and seem attached unhealthily to the human suffering which they create. As the Prime Minister told the House of Commons, there is no option to avoid conflict: they have declared war on us and are intent on bringing their murderous carnage to our shores if we let them.

That does not mean that I do not have some reservations about the risks of getting embroiled into a conflict much greater and deeper than that which their provocation necessitates. The Middle East is festooned with age-old conflicts into which we have no place and no role. We need to be respectful of the complexities of the relationships that make up the region, and at all times it must be the regional players who are in the lead on the ground. In that respect, I am pleased that we will not be deploying British combat troops within the terms of Friday’s motion, but there will need to be some follow-up on the ground – I presume that this will be the responsibility of neighbouring states who are best placed to act. One word of caution must be the need to be watchful of the atrocious human rights records of some of those who might fight alongside us, such as the Iranian.

In essence, I stand behind the Government on the decision to support our allies in confronting this threat together – responding favourably to the request from the Iraqi government for assistance. But there was a collective hesitancy in the House Friday; no-one could get out of their minds the last time a debate was held on the cusp of British military action in Iraq – even those of us who were not there. I was always opposed to the 2003 war in Iraq, but the effect of a Prime Minister failing to tell it straight to Parliament cast a very substantial shadow on our proceedings.

I believe that all MPs spent part of the debate reflecting on the impact of the 2003 proceedings on the radicalisation of some impressionable youngsters subsequently recruited as jihadis to confront the neo-conservative invasion of the Middle East promoted so enthusiastically by Tony Blair. Friday, by contrast, the debate was less about messianic zeal and more to do with the realisation of the threat facing us, our principles and values. We did not need dodgy dossiers and hyper-inflated rhetoric – Isil are more than capable of their own depraved propaganda.

The Government has chosen to tread cautiously – particularly given the result in August 2013 when Parliament declined to approve their plan to arm Syrian rebels. I supported the Government in that vote, but experience underlines the importance of deploying military kit cautiously: we don’t want to have to overcome our own equipment in enemy hands.

Ultimately, the question was whether to act, or not to act. It seems to me that either situation risks us becoming engulfed in circles of hatred and conflict which could be difficult to escape. My motivation is to do what I can to make sure that our children and grandchildren are protected from a world of extremist ideology, hatred, oppression and genocide. Undoubtedly we are playing with a fire which has been burning for many centuries. On balance, I believe that we are best to confront this threat head-on – Isil seems determined to bring the fight to us and we should not compromise our principles in the face of their evil bullying.

Sadly, I am not fully assured that passing Friday's motion will result in the sustainable peace which we seek. This is not a question of machismo or the pursuit of grand visions. The dilemma is whether striking back will serve to dampen the flames rather than add fuel to the fire. No decision can be harder for a politician to have to make. Much now rests on the judgement of the Prime Minister, senior ministers and our brave personnel.