Brandon Lewis is MP for Great Yarmouth, and formerly served as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Our members, councillors and volunteers are the backbone of our Party. Many assumptions, and misconceptions, have been floated in recent days about the hundreds of thousands of members who will cast their vote to decide on the country’s next leader.
For the next six weeks, they will hear directly from our final two candidates in this leadership contest in theatres, town halls and conference centres across the country.
As a former Chairman of the Party, I have seen the seriousness with which our members take this responsibility; in 2019, thousands turned out at hustings across the country to put the final two candidates through their paces, asking considered and informed questions of them about policy, purpose and personality.
Earlier this week, I wrote that the allegations of dark arts and dirty tricks that have plagued this leadership contest to date are a gift to the Opposition, adding to their research folders and leaflet fodder. They will take any opportunity to exploit division and they have done.
Right on cue, earlier this week, Labour released a video of the televised leadership debates that have taken place so far. It was painfully predictable: a head-to-head with the then five leadership contenders all necessarily competing for the most airtime and the most dramatic punchline.
Selective clips have since been stitched together into a mocking video on our record in government. No doubt it will be ruthlessly and relentlessly broadcast in target seats and marginal constituencies across the country.
We have been in government a long time. We have much to be proud of, much to improve on and much to complete. We cannot become short-sighted, sacrificing the integrity of the oldest political party in the world for the sake of a few soundbites.
We must treat the Party, as an entity and an institution, and the people who are part of it, with the respect it deserves.
We talk about acting as custodians for the economy, known for sound economic management and decision-making, not passing on the burden of debt to the next generation. We talk about protecting the environment, so we pass on a healthier planet to our children and grandchildren. We must treat the Party in the same way.
We join as members and volunteers and stand as councillors or Members of Parliament because we believe it represents a force for good – a bastion of opportunity for all, a meritocracy that respects and rewards talent and enterprise. We are all custodians of the Party and its principles, protecting and enhancing them for those who will come after us.
It is undeniable that the Party has been damaged by these televised debates. We have always been a broad church, it is one of the Party’s greatest strengths and an enormous asset. Such diversity of thought and opinion is a credit to our Party. But we cannot allow it to be exploited or misrepresented.
The format of the debates have exposed fault lines and fractures that have only served to undermine us. It is absolutely right, of course, that our candidates are put to the test, their policies scrutinised and their performance under pressure examined by the widest possible audience. But this was not the way to do it.
As Chairman, I loathed these sorts of head-to-head debates during the last leadership contest for exactly that reason. We did not run them this way as a Party, but there was still ample opportunity for our members and the public to scrutinise the candidates.
We organised online hustings and livestreams which provided the chance for robust questioning of the candidates on their suitability for the highest office in the country and stewardship of our Party, with each focused on their positive plan for the future.
These hustings showcased the very best of our Party: thousands of members coming together across the whole of the UK, united in the task of choosing our next leader. I witnessed first-hand the appreciation so many had for the importance of their role in voting for the next prime minister. I am absolutely certain that this time will be no different.
Each of these hustings was chaired by an experienced broadcaster, with questions put to each of the candidates individually. They were each given the chance to set out their pledges to the Party, a positive platform to outline their core aims and ambitions for the voluntary Party, the parliamentary Party and the country.
It provided for a much more in-depth analysis of their principles and policy proposals than a head-to-head debate can provide, and crucially, it did not descend into a blue-on-blue battle that could do long term damage to the integrity of the Party.
This may be a contest for the highest office in the country, but we cannot become blinkered. Whatever happens, the long-term consequences of this leadership contest will be significant.
It is essential that when the final votes have been cast and counted and the result declared that we are able to come back together and unite in our shared mission to see-through our promises at the last election and tackle the national economic emergency the country faces. The British people deserve no less.
If we don’t reunite and rebuild from here, we will have failed as the custodians of our Party as a force for good for the next generation. That is not an option.