Just a few days after the general election I wrote on these pages that I was worried. Worried that if the Conservative Party continued focusing on the positives of the campaign and the result we would not reach a full and proper understanding of what went wrong and why. I was also worried that if the Conservative Party did not demonstrate its understanding of the anger and frustration that had led to so many people voting Labour and Conservatives losing seats, then our position would be under threat long term.
Almost three months later I am very sorry to say that my worst fears are coming true. I read today on ConHome that the CCHQ review into what went wrong is expected to present recommendations only, rather than a full report of the assessment of people on the ground.
This week, the Prime Minister announced that she intends to stay on and fight the next General Election – and various people have lined up to pretend she’s right.
Recent polls from YouGov and ICM put the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck, indicating that the party has made no progress towards restoring confidence since the vote. I’m told that it’s OK, because the polls say people think Theresa May would make a better Prime Minister than Jeremy Corbyn, but YouGov’s latest put May only four percentage points ahead of Corbyn, down from a 13 point personal lead just before the General Election.
The feeling among activists is of chaos, frustration and anger. The feedback I am getting from committed, loyal, hard working activists includes things like “madness”, “ridiculous”, “we’re in freefall”, and “they just don’t get it”.
I’m sorry to say, I agree with them.
What I don’t think has been fully appreciated in the Westminster bubble is just how precarious our reputation – and therefore our position – is out in the country. We are extremely lucky that Labour has chosen this period to be in even greater chaos, because even a minimally credibly opposition would have banished our party to the wilderness for several election cycles.
There are four key things that anyone who wants to see Conservative governments returned in the future needs to understand:
- No matter how you cut it, we lost GE2017. We lost seats, and that’s what actually matters. Trying to spin it into a positive story is insulting the electorate’s intelligence and only serves to push them further away.
- Despite winning a majority in 2015, that result was not a resounding victory either. People voted Conservative as a least-worst option. They voted Conservative as a leap of faith, and then wanted to be persuaded that they had made the right choice.
- This year, many of the people who voted Conservative held their nose to do so. They have no love or enthusiasm for the party – only fear of Jeremy Corbyn. They distrust us, dislike us, and are angry with us. If a vaguely competent opposition emerges we are incredibly vulnerable.
- Conservative activists are absolutely raging. There is no other way to put it. There is no more goodwill left to draw upon. Long-term committed activists have fled. More have adopted a ‘wait and see’ approach, hoping to be convinced that it is worth staying and putting in the work. Their patience will soon run out, leaving a rump of activists who are, frankly, masochists.
At the same time, the sands of British politics continue to shift. The old class allegiances have broken down. Demographic changes and the perceptions of the young are not in our favour. And Brexit has raised expectations: the country voted to take back control, and part of that vote was for a higher quality, more in touch political class.
Right now, the Conservative Party’s approach is dominated by two things: fear of messing up Brexit, and fear that infighting would damage the party, leading to fresh elections and possibly a Corbyn government.
These concerns are real and valid. But the idea that getting Brexit right (whatever that actually means) would rehabilitate our reputation and make the public trust us again is for the birds.
Too often people in politics seem to think that they can spin their way out of a crisis, and that a rabbit-out-of-the-hat policy announcement can solve any problem. But over decades the Great British public have wised up to these games: they see straight through it.
Ordinary people – who all too often are looked down on by Westminster elites – have developed an extremely sensitive ‘BS monitor’. They may not always be able to explain exactly how and why you are doing it, but they know when something is up: they know when you’re spinning, selling a policy you do not believe in, trying to distract them, or fudging the numbers.
It may be an uncomfortable concept to many who have spent their political lives parroting lines and getting their understanding of the real world via the media, but the only way out of this mess – the only way to rebuild trust – is through honestly, openness and authenticity. Please let’s change direction before it’s too late.