David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.
“Now that Boris Johnson has gone, I’ve a request for your next column,” said the Editor. “In the context of the leadership race, tell us what it would take for you to return to the Conservative Party.”
I worried to myself that this might be a little self-indulgent. It would be much more fun for me to write than for anyone else to read but, then again, one could say that about most of my columns. I was also conscious that this was not likely to be the question that was at the forefront of the candidates’ minds when trying to win the support of Tory MPs and members. This is explicitly not advice on how to win the leadership election.
The Editor’s case was that – given I had been a long time Conservative member, MP and Minister but had become estranged from the Party – there might be some interest in seeing what it would take to end this estrangement. After all, my estrangement is not unique.
My views remain centre-right. A strong economy is most likely to be delivered by creating a stable, predictable and competitive business environment where hard work and enterprise is rewarded. Government expenditure ultimately has to be constrained by what the Government is able and willing to raise in revenue. A successful society must be built on a belief in personal responsibility. The State has an important role to play, but it cannot do everything. The market is, as a rule, efficient at allocating resources. Robust institutions – especially those supporting the rule of law – are vital in delivering peace and prosperity. We should be sceptical about ideology. Change is often for the best, but it is not necessarily so. The practical and realistic should triumph over the sentimental and idealistic.
These values are not exclusively conservative but, by and large, the Conservative Party has adhered to them more faithfully than other parties. Those who share these values have, by and large, voted Conservative.
In recent years, however, some of these voters have had a problem with the Conservatives. Far from creating a stable business environment, the Conservatives have created great uncertainty that has diminished investment and made us less competitive. Institutions – the judiciary, Parliament and civil service, for example – have been disparaged. A purist view of sovereignty has become an ideology that has trumped practicality.
How does the Party win back such voters? Speaking for myself, it made a start by ridding itself of Johnson as leader. I am conscious that anything I will say could be put down to the fact that he threw me out of the Party, but it is striking to read the very many resignation letters that demonstrate that even his own Ministers thought he lacked the integrity to be Prime Minister. I worry that there are already moves to rehabilitate him, but the belated action of Ministers was encouraging.
Whoever succeeds Johnson will need to establish and demonstrate higher standards of integrity. It is a test I would expect any of the candidates to meet.
Johnson’s casual dishonesty was not the only problem. A change of tone is also needed. I remember being told regularly that once the general election was out the way and Brexit delivered, Johnson would revert to the earlier, more emollient Mayor of London version. It never happened. Brexit and the culture wars seemed to be the agenda on which he was going to fight the next general election, picking at the wounds of 2019. It would be very welcome if the new leader could eschew all that.
It is all too obvious that on most issues there was a lack of seriousness about Johnson. The Conservative Party should be a natural party of government – administratively competent and capable of articulating and delivering coherent policies. There continues to be many able Conservative MPs but very few of them were in Johnson’s Cabinet.
A very obvious first test of the new Prime Minister is whether they put in place a Cabinet based largely on talent, or on the basis of personal loyalty and the need to buy off particular sections of the Parliamentary party. Cabinet selections are always something of a compromise but, nonetheless, this should give us a good indication as to what qualities matter most to the new leadership. Greater meritocracy is desperately needed.
A new seriousness about policy is also required, which means focusing on the big issues of the moment and of the longer term. We have not heard that much of this in the leadership election, but that should not be held against whoever is the winning candidate. Good, brave policies will probably be held against them; it is what they do when in office that will really count.
There is a cost of living crisis on the horizon. What is the plan? (For a start, the Government could put a bit more enthusiasm into explaining what it has already announced.) How is the Government going to improve our productivity? What does it want to do about public services reform? Specifically, what is it going to do about social care? (Ministers still boast about solving this ,but the tax rise that was announced to fund reform has already been partially reversed, and the rest may go depending on who wins.) If the Government is committed to Net Zero, how is it going to deliver? The same question applies to levelling up.
Different candidates will have different answers to these questions. In some cases, I am sure I would reach different conclusions, but the point here is that a serious Conservative Government would at least be engaging in these matters and providing answers. Serious but wrong would still be an improvement.
Any such seriousness would have to be accompanied by a greater degree of honesty about the trade-offs involved. This brings me to my greatest problem with the modern Conservative Party – our relationship with the EU.
The decision to leave the EU in 2016 was, in my view, a big mistake. I was one of those who believed that this decision should be implemented, but in a pragmatic way which mitigated the damage caused. Sadly, this was not to be and we have found ourselves with an inadequate relationship that is damaging our prosperity with the potential for matters to get worse if we descend into a trade war over Northern Ireland.
I do not expect the Conservative Party to reverse course any time soon, but some degree of honesty about where we are and some pragmatism as to where we go next would be welcome. A party that dances to the tune of the European Research Group is not for the likes of me.
So to answer the Editor’s question, what would it need for me to want to return? This is a non-exhaustive list but, for starters, a leader with integrity, a reasonably competent Cabinet, a less divisive tone, a new seriousness of purpose on policy and, in particular, some pragmatism on Europe. It is not too much to ask, is it?