Until a week ago yesterday, Conservative MPs had, for the best part of a year, drawn nearer the edge of a precipice – like a seething mass of lemmings or a flock of Gadarene swine.
Then, last Monday, they peered over the edge, blinked at the drop, and drew back. The collective instinct for survival and power that has served the Party so well so many times, leaving it the most venerable one in the history of the world, reasserted itself against the odds. It is not too extravagant to claim that the Tory MPs may have saved the Conservatives from destruction.
And who took the Party to within shot of it in the first place, you will ask? If you are a dedicated Remainer, you will hold them responsible for the EU referendum. If you are a committed Leaver, you may blame them for the ousting of Boris Johnson. If you are either, you will concede that the Theresa May halfway house was not a success.
If you are anything at all, you will admit a possibility, even perhaps a likelihood – that the Liz Truss premiership wasn’t the worst in British history only because she wasn’t given the time to make it so. Who sent her through to the final round of the third Tory leadership election in seven years? Conservative MPs.
A broader view confirms a wider responsibility. The Parliamentary Party didn’t simple create May, Johnson, Truss and now Rishi Sunak out of nothing. Their leaderships arose from deep divisions, within the British people themselves, over the future of their country, and to Brexit must be added a financial crash, a once in a century pandemic and a European war.
As for Conservative MPs sending a better candidate than Truss to Party members, it is true that any of the others is likely to have done far better. But it is worth bearing in mind that no proven champion was left lounging in the lists. Kemi Badenoch, who if our survey was correct is the membership’s favourite, is a work in progress.
Which brings us to the members’ own choice. Decisively if not overwhelmingly, they made the wrong one. I don’t blame my fellow members for doing so. After all, they went for the candidate who told them what they want to hear. Don’t the British people usually do the same at elections?
But if Tory MPs’ fingerprints were on the Truss daggger, so were those of the rest of the Party. We will never know if they also would have drawn back from the cliff’s edge – though our latest monthly survey may help to find out. But the Parliamentary Party deserves credit for doing so.
Steve Baker, Iain Duncan Smith and, yes, Suella Braverman (about whom I plan to write tomorrow): these stalwarts of the Party’s right, and others, rallied to the cause of the man who they and Party members had previously rejected: the battered but resilient figure of Sunak.
The former Chancellor was my choice for leader in the contest of the summer. I had lots of reservations, all set out at the time. These weren’t focused on his wife’s former tax status and his one-time American Green Card. Rather, I thought that as a campaigner he had allowed himself to be boxed in, defined by others, and had shown a failure of imagination.
Still, who am I to demand perfection in others? And more Conservative MPs had voted for him than for any other candidate. So it would be sensible, I argued, for Party members to give them the candidate to whom they least objected, and offer Sunak the benefit of the doubt. You can decide for yourself whether that judgement was correct (assuming you can be bothered).
At any rate, he is now in place. And a central question that follows is whether Tory MPs, and indeed the Party as a whole, is capable of following through that instinct for survival, and uniting behind anyone at all. Or whether it’s no longer capable of doing so.
The answer hangs in the balance. The old post-war military culture in the Commons broke down long ago. MPs contain fewer knights of the shires on the Conservative side, and far fewer former manual workers on the Labour one. They have morphed from elected representatives to constituency campaigners.
The gain in local service has been offset by a loss in governing coherence. A majority of 80 is not what it was. Johnson’s electoral high tide swept into the harbour candidates who weren’t expecting to be returned. That is not unusual in itself. The same happened after Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, with knobs on.
But the New Labour years didn’t see a once in a century pandemic, with new MPs locked down, unable to socialise normally, and shut out from the usual Westminster learning experience. That WhatsApp exists by way of compensation only adds to governments’ headaches. To cut a long story short, it’s good for the legislature but bad for the executive.
That MPs can speak to each other electronically beyond the Whips’ sight is another problem for the latter, on top of: their loss of patronage since Select Committee chairs were elected, the political challenges of recent years, bewildering turnover in their own office, a record number of former Ministers on the backbenches, and the rise of a celebrity culture in the House.
On top of all that must be piled raw feelings in the wake of the deposing of an election winner, Johnson, and a candidate in whom the members misplaced their confidence, Truss. Reductions in the rate of growth of public spending were coming anyway. The consequence of her failed experiment is that more will be needed, and that they will be accompanied by further tax rises.
It is possible that the Conservatives’ reputation won’t recover for many years from the combined impact of parties in Downing Street and the mini-Budget unleashed under Truss. And that the great rolling media scandal hunt, of which the Braverman saga is in part an example, will overwhelm Sunak, as it will any government of any party.
All that can be said so far is that the sense of direction is positive. The Tory rating has scarcely moved in Politicos poll of polls. Twenty-four per cent of the vote in a general election might well bring electoral oblivion to the Conservatives. But the new Prime Minister’s rating is running well ahead of his party’s and in some cases of Keir Starmer’s.
YouGov found Sunak’s ratings up last week. Redfield Winton says that he leads Starmer on knowing how to get things done, strong leadership and, perhaps most significantly, building a strong economy. Opinium has much the same economic finding. It may survive the forthcoming financial statement and it may not.
But it is not absurd to believe that the new Prime Minister can build on this positive start, that the Conservative rating can follow where his may lead, and that Labour’s lead shrivels as the spotlight turns on what a Starmer government might do. Even so, the odds against a majority fifth term Tory government are very long indeed.
It is reasonable to hope, too, that Sunak will offer fewer hostages to fortune than Johnson, let alone Truss. The key to success for him, however frustrating political journalists may find it, may be daring to be dull. Goodness knows, if a week is a long time in politics, how much those who follow it have aged since the fall of Owen Paterson and what followed.