Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
The leadership roadshow continues its trundle around Britain. The gigs in Perth (16th) and Belfast (17th) might well be the most meaningful. Finally, the future state of the Union will be on the agenda for the Conservative and Unionist Party. Up for debate will surely be the big stuff – the Northern Ireland Protocol and the puzzle of First Minister Sturgeon’s towering electoral success against her pitiful record in government.
To those outside the Party, the leadership contest can be summed up as OK, Boomer. The Gen Z/Millennial put-down conveys the presumed complacency and self-interest of that fabled creature, the Typical Conservative Party Member. S/he is rarely sighted, hidden in plain sight among the other 99.65 per cent of the electorate.
According to the stereotype, Party members – all white, wealthy and wrinkly – are more interested in bragging rights at the golf/tennis/bowls club bar rather than the future of the country. Concerns about the Green Belt and protecting their patch of this pleasant land trump any issue relevant to most voters, whether Red Wall, Blue Wall or Wonderwall.
Somehow, the other political parties are teeming with eager-beaver altruists, while the Conservatives can only appeal to a bunch of reactionary throwbacks, last seen in seventies’ sit-coms. Nice Tom and Barbara from The Good Life would of course support that cosy mulch of Lib Dem-Greenery: Jerry and the frightful Margot Leadbetter, steering her hostess trolley like a gas-guzzling Jag, are the awful Tories.
Given the sneers, jeers, and prejudice they are having to put up with, Party members might as well make the most of their moment in the spotlight.
First, what must surely be up for debate is whether the Conservative grassroots welcome this contest. While there might be thousands who remain loyal to the consigned-to-history Boris Johnson, many more could well be troubled by the wider message being sent out about having a fourth Prime Minister in six years. Such restlessness denotes Italian levels of indifference to serious politics, as well as a preoccupation with personalities – rather than confidence in core Conservative values.
Conservative lodestars are surely freedom, liberty, a small state and personal responsibility, along with practical compassion for society’s less fortunate. Members who buy into these principles are wondering whether they are going to return. Will we ever get the infection of Big State – caught from the Chinese Communist Party and evidenced by lockdown – out of the bloodstream of our body politic?
The leadership contest could well be an opportunity for Party renewal after 12 years in office. However, revitalisation would have been easier had the two finalists not been so enmeshed in recent governments. Instead, the pair are trying to distance themselves from the policy and delivery failures in which, as part of collective Cabinet responsibility, they are complicit.
With the contest for Prime Minister starting with the resignation of Sajid Javid on 5th July and set to finish on 5th September, the Conservatives are gifting two months of future ammunition to Labour and the SNP. Both sides’ triumphant cries of “gotcha” greeting any hint of hesitation or U-turn by the opponent are piffling short-term tactical wins: such blue-on-blue attacks are long-term strategic disasters. (Watch Labour’s brilliant mash-up of the five-way debate set to Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice and weep)
The only, repeat, only positive about the leadership contest is that, as they swap 5 Hertford Street for Hertfordshire, the finalists might start grasping the extent of the unprecedented mess Britain is in.
“Nothing works” should replace “Dieu et Mon Droit” on the cover of British passports. In recent weeks airports and Channel ports have looked less like 21st century transportation hubs serving one of the world’s leading economies and more the last exits from a banana republic in the grip of a coup.
It’s not just the economy, stupid; many of our fellow citizens are also sweating the smaller day-to-day stuff. Unable to get an appointment with a doctor, dentist or at a hospital thanks to the record 6.5million NHS waiting list, they are reminded of last year’s debacle at the DVLA, with its “catastrophic” backlog of 1.6 million applications. The chaos is replicated at the Passport Office.
Perhaps the two finalists might be able to solve the mystery of exactly what our 70-year-high taxes are being frittered away upon, given the rubbish state of our public services. They can explain where the £37 billion on the failed Test and Trace system vanished.
We’re hearing a lot about minor tax cuts from the two contenders but little about making efforts to curb massive public spending. Of course, one woman’s savings are another’s woman’s cuts and a third woman’s attack on the most underprivileged.
Give the grassroots a pencil and the back of a fag packet and they will come up with millions in savings before Treasury mandarins can say sunk cost fallacy. Some would ditch HS2, others the lethal smart motorway roll-out and yet more would urge the NHS to make a one per cent saving in backroom staff. Every little helps.
It’s now or never for Party members to wring commitments out of the candidates. How about a rethink on unilateral carbon dioxide Net Zero, that vanity project of the worried well within the political classes. This has been given a boost thanks to governments’ dereliction of the duty to plan for Britain’s energy security. No power; no emissions.
As the candidates are backing the policy to phase out fossil-fuelled cars and gas boilers within a few years, it can only be inferred that both are content that voters are about to be priced out of heating or driving this winter. Extinction Rebellion is happy: who cares if constituents are stranded or shivering, eh?
OK, Party members, we have a few weeks to make a difference. Let’s use them wisely.