Dr Lee Rotherham is author of Land of the Superwoke, second edition available on Kindle, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
Risk analysts sometimes use a reference tool called a Cone of Probability. This is not the likelihood of losing control of a fistful of purchased Mr Whippies; rather it’s a means of visualising the prospect of an event happening or not.
Its most familiar format is found in mapping hurricane routes, but it’s helpful for abstracts and events too.
Let’s here just take its simplest form. Picture a cone peculiarly balanced on its point. The position of the observer at the present moment of time sits at that tip, and the way events might turn out is what rests above it.
What lies within the cone is what can happen, with the less-likely nearer to the edge, and what is outside the cone is impossible. The radius of the cone increases over time as uncertainty increases, with more prospects and variables coming into play.
The concept supplies a handy means of visualising probability, and in more developed applications can help show bands and scale of risk and opportunities for mitigation.
Why mention this? Because whenever I am asked by a depressed Conservative what are the chances of the Party winning the next election, I respond by pointing to the cone. The election in all likelihood is at least a year and a half away. There is still sufficient time between now and then for the result to be in meaningful doubt. A Conservative win still for now lies within that cone.
To prove it, merely look at what Labour is doing. It has upped its game lately, targeting in particular those issues where it has itself historically been least credible (such as public spending, tax rates, crime, immigration, and even Brexit delivery). It has been chasing statistics that suggest the Conservatives currently fail to deliver better results than even they themselves tend to do.
Its leaders have stopped tweeting pictures of themselves taking the knee, and its MPs have been ordered to endear themselves to the voter – albeit with varying degrees of fudge.
Take Zarah Sultana for instance. She has a poster supporting NHS strikes boldly tacked onto her parliamentary office door, but that door is tucked away in an outbuilding well out of general view. Labour senses it has everything to play for, but that things are not yet in the bag. Recall for comparison the brazen Corbynism of yore.
So what’s stopping the certainty? A number of factors. Some lie within the ability of the Conservative leadership to address; others don’t.
There was of course Covid. If you close chunks of hospitals to increase capacity and to avoid killing existing vulnerable patients then of course you are going to generate enormous backlog, and also find with your delays that you have ultimately created – and in some cases killed – a whole different set of vulnerable patients.
Those are now enduring legacy issues where the fallout of old decisions is still tumbling on.
The biggest ongoing variable by a country mile is the cost of living crisis, interlinked with inflation. Those are driven overwhelmingly by the hits to the global economy from the Ukraine war, through massive market disruption but also through sanctions. It is to this Government’s credit that, unlike other baulking capitals, it stood firm.
But who gets the credit from the global bounce that will follow peace, whenever it happens, is as unforeseeable as the timing of that peace. As far as the poll ratings go, whoever simply is in office will be in luck. Right now, the cone is in play on that point.
Then there are the public sector strikes. This test of Government resolve still lies in its own hands. Given the trajectory, on a particular day right around now the nation will be sitting at exactly two and a half trillion pounds in debt.
Its November borrowing figures, at £22 billion, are the highest monthly figures since records began in 1993. On the most basic terms we as a nation simply cannot afford the pay rates demanded by the unions, especially the most absurd bids such as the 19 per cent for nurses, even before we start to consider the prospects for early-onset stagflation that would follow.
This is a battle of wills, where some (not all) of the union leaders are politically malicious in their intent.
A critical point though is that this cone isn’t just driven by economics. There are a range of areas where a Conservative election victory becomes more possible if the public observes a government of sincere belief chasing remedy, trying to fix things ordinary people know full well are broken and have seen past governments shy from.
Many of them are intertwined, both by the core problem narratives running across departments as through Blackpool rock, but also the identical entrenchments against change that lie astride.
That means delivering legal immigration in the tens of thousands, rather than the half millions. It means deterring illegal immigrants by demonstrating the system does not reward cheating.
It means ending the default of rewarding civil service failure, but rather running joined-up government to deliver strategic objectives.
It means criminals getting caught and doing time. It means taking the NHS off its impossible pedestal, or at least actually defining what you are clapping (invariably its million workforce – as individuals – and not the system, or the structure, or its many lethal failures).
It means rewarding YIMBYs. It means building homes for a bigger population. It means turning Conservatives away from the cult of capital-E Environmentalism and back towards a deep love of our countryside, pragmatically managed.
It means pushing back against political correctness in all its forms, especially where abused fraudulently or narcissistically. It means standing up for British history, with all its shadowed complexities and nuances, rather than yielding the pitch to poundshop Mugabes. It means refusing to strip museums of artefacts in response to misplaced guilt fads.
It means, across so much of the public sector, ministers tearing focus away from HR box ticking, introspection and self-validation, and into delivery. It means putting both the moral and the practical, revenue-generating, case for lower taxes.
And it means telling Whitehall to actually deliver on dithered red tape cuts – the greatest absurdity of them all, since its own studies have already listed and costed what should be binned but what was deemed out-of-scope simply because of EU membership (I have seen one such report; but it seems no senior servant wants to admit they ever happened).
In short, the Conservative Party needs to re-establish itself as the party of obvious Conservatism, in power to get things done rather than simply to keep the left out.
John Major’s fag-end Government in the late nineties showed us how not to do it. It was too redolent of Vitellius, “unable to keep at any one activity or keep his mind on any one subject, but in his bewilderment was driven this way and that like a ship in a storm.”
Rishi Sunak’s speech demonstrated that, at the macro level, Downing Street has identified the big problems, even if there is still uncertainty and elasticity over its policy responses.
Is the pledged cut in debt a Gordon Brown-style sleight of hand, to be measured in GDP percentages and as affected by inflation? What measures will be introduced to curtail and reverse anti-social behaviour? How robust will policy be over the Strasbourg obstacle to meaningful address human rights law farce?
This is a critical moment in locking policy down and then getting those instructions unambiguously out to departments. The Conservative leadership needs to reassert its mission, to grasp probability’s cone as assiduously as an aggressive Momentum protestor does a traffic one.
That is, however, merely the first and belated step.
It will then find across the remaining sessions of this Parliament that there are numerous vested interests stopping it from delivering the necessary reforms it seeks.
But that is a prerequisite to progress. With each House of Lords wobble, with each naïve glue-in, with each malicious civil service leak, and each Gofundme judicial review, obstacles and blockers will be put in plain public view.
Then, as the general election nears and the cone narrows down to a point, Sunak’s team can honestly address the voters and demonstrate that it has indeed kept the faith – asking now for the unambiguous mandate to overcome the complex interlocked problems from which politicians have run shy for too long, and where the barriers are now commonly familiar.
There is also, though, the option of doing nothing. But that approach means waving the cone – and with it, its remaining prospects and hopes – goodbye.