Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire, the Chair of the Conservative backbench Treasury Committee and a member of the Treasury Select Committee.
Put aside the feelings of vengeance. Park the concerns about Brexit being unwound. Contain the annoyance at the level of tax you pay. In my last column about how to decide who to vote for, I suggested ten things we should look for in a new leader and new Prime Minister. They distil down to leading the country, uniting the party, and winning the next election.
But of those, there is one that is paramount if you care about Conservative values: winning the election. The focus of the leadership campaign should be less about who will cut taxes when, or how the candidates would tackle illegal migration or their stance on transgender issues.
The main focus should be on how they plan to keep Kier Starmer out of Number 10. There is no point in having a leader we like for two years just to put Labour into power afterwards.
So far, we have heard relatively little from the candidates about their election-winning strategies. But we face a general election in two years or less – as soon as they become leader, we will be on an election footing.
And it will be an unprecedented challenge. Never before has a British political party won five elections in a row. John Major managed the fourth consecutive Conservative general election win; then followed the Labour landslide of 1997.
Granted, the general elections have been pretty close of late (three between 2015 and 2019), but still we should not underestimate the difficulty of persuading voters return a Conservative government for the fifth time.
The current electoral geography means the next election is more critical than almost any in recent history. The strength of SNP in Scotland means there is virtually no chance that Labour can form a majority on their own. However, they can only win with the support of a coalition of chaos, propped up by SNP in Scotland and Lib Dems in England.
Each of those parties will demand a price – independence for Scotland, and the end of first past the post. The aim of that electoral reform would be to keep the Conservatives out of power in perpetuity, and they could succeed.
The Conservative Party is famous for being the most successful democratic political party in history. Since the Second World War, we have been in power one and a half times longer than Labour.
Part of the reason for that is that Britain is essentially a conservative country, so it elects Conservative governments. But another is that our main opposition has a weakness for choosing leaders that please its members but not the country.
Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn were revered by Labour members, but unelectable in Britain. Their main contribution to history was keeping Conservatives in Government. In contrast, Labour’s most successful election winner, Tony Blair, is a leader who has long been despised by Labour members.
In contrast, the Conservatives have generally chosen leaders who can win. In brief, it is a question about whether you put principles above power, or power above principles. Labour tend to focus on principles, we tend to focus on government.
That is nothing to be ashamed of: the true measure of whether something is worthwhile is not its ideological purity, but the impact it has on people’s lives in the real world – and if you stay in opposition, you can do little but complain.
Obviously, there is no point in being in power for power’s sake, and I would not support that. But there is a core set of conservative beliefs – in free enterprise, in aspiration, in freedom, in country, in law and order and strong defence – that will be better advanced with a Conservative government than a Labour one.
So to cut to the chase, if you are a Brexiteer worried about Brexit being unwound, it matters far less whether Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss are the true Brexiteers, with one having voted for Brexit, and the other a convert.
The biggest threat to Brexit is Starmer entering Number 10 in 2024. He may have said he won’t seek to unwind it, but the direction of travel under a Labour government lead by someone who campaigned for a second referendum to cancel Brexit is obvious.
If you share my dismay at the high rate of taxation, and want tax cuts, your main concern should not be whether you prefer Truss’s jam today rather than Sunak’s jam tomorrow. There is no conceivable scenario where a Labour government in 2024 will lead to lower taxes than a Conservative one under either leader. There is no point in choosing your favourite tax cutter for two years, if it then leads to Starmer being prime minister.
If you are concerned about trans issues and women’s rights, your biggest concern should not be the nuance of beliefs of the Tory leader we have for the next two years, but putting a Labour leader into Number 10 who simply can’t say what a woman is. A Labour government would be the political delivery wing of the woke movement.
If you want strong defence, the difference between Sunak and Truss is small compared to a Labour government stuffed full of ministers who voted not to renew Trident, and who campaigned to put the Kremlin-stooge Corbyn into power.
There is another point about a party you are a member of being in Government: you get to influence it. It may not feel like it, but all political parties end up responding to the broad concerns of their members. David Cameron was the Remainer leader who could not resist the Brexit demands of his party.
So what we need to hear more about from the candidates is how are they going to win the next election. How are they going to retain the red wall seats in the North? How are they going to stop us losing the blue wall in the south to Lib Dems? How are they going to appeal to voters in Scotland to retain our Scottish seats, and in Wales to retain our Welsh ones? How are they going to appeal to wavering voters, blue collar voters and young voters?
After the recent turbulence, how are they going to deliver the competent, stable, scandal-free government that will restore voters’ trust in the Conservative Party? How well are they going to communicate with voters?
These are the questions members should be asking at hustings, not trying to tease out who is the real heir to Thatcher (who incidentally could only have so much impact precisely because she was so good at winning elections).
All MPs, especially in marginal seats like mine, tend to focus on who can best help them win their seats, as well as win the country. A poll I did among local voters showed Rishi the clear favourite, but in other seats it will be different.
The difference between the two leadership candidates is far smaller than the difference with Labour. The new leader will clearly have to win among the Conservative Party, but then more importantly will have to win the country.
So, in short, don’t do a Labour. When you are deciding who to vote for, don’t vote for the candidate that wins you over. Vote for the candidate you believe is most likely to win the country over.