Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
A question for my fellow Conservatives: what exactly do you hope your vote at the next election will achieve?
Don’t place yourself in the shoes of an imaginary swing voter. Rather, fast forward to polling day, and picture your own fingers holding the string-tethered pencil above the Tory tree emblem. Are you going to put your cross there? If so, why?
I’m guessing that, for many of you, the answer is chiefly negative. You don’t want Labour to exacerbate our problems with even more tax, spending and borrowing. You suspect that Sir Keir Starmer, who was always on the Labour left and who enthusiastically urged us to make Jeremy Corbyn prime minister, is a less moderate than he now makes out.
You worry about whether Brexit might be reversed, or at least Britain hauled into the customs union – the worst of all worlds. You fear the unintended consequences of constitutional meddling: a federal UK, a new voting system, some kind of woke upper house comprised, by quota, of groups with protected characteristics.
These are reasonable concerns. Politics is necessarily a choice between imperfect alternatives, and voting X to stop Y has always been a legitimate choice.
But, after four consecutive Conservative victories, it won’t be enough. Starmer is unlikely to take needless political risks or to trip up in the way that Neil Kinnock did before the 1992 election. His approach is far closer to that of Tony Blair before 1997.
That is to say that, on the issues where the Conservatives traditionally do better – crime, defence, the economy – he is sticking close to them, denying them clear blue water. And he is simultaneously tossing gobbets of red meat to his base on touchstone issues, such as a more stringent hunting ban, Lords reform, and VAT on private school fees.
No, the Tories cannot rely on simply not being Starmer. They need to offer something positive, too.
At this stage in the cycle, a governing party should be able to point to its record as an indication of what it will do next. And the Tories do have achievements to their name. We can easily forget that, when David Cameron came to power in 2010, our deficit was higher than Greece’s.
Michael Gove’s school reforms have been one of the great political success stories of my life, rescuing an entire generation. Brexit created the circumstances for the vaccine rollout that let us out of lockdown nearly a year before many of our European neighbours.
But the momentum has dried up. When did the Tories last meaningfully cut taxes? I think we have to go back to Nigel Lawson. Why have they let the state machine go woke? Why can’t they stop the boats?
When did they last denationalise anything? Since 2015, the Tories have not privatised a single enterprise. They have, however, nationalised railway companies, probation services, a steel firm, and an airport.
Jeremy Hunt plainly intends to fight the next election promising tax cuts. In 1934, the then-Chancellor, Neville Chamberlain, was able to tell Commons that the austerity imposed following the crash had done its job, and the deficit had become a surplus: “We have finished the story of Bleak House, and are sitting down this afternoon to the first chapter of Great Expectations.”
Voters agreed. Stanley Baldwin’s National Government was re-elected the following year with 429 seats to Labour’s 154.
But when the Tories tried something similar in the mid-1990s – “Yes it hurt, yes it worked” – voters were having none of it. Where Baldwin succeeded in convincing the country that Britain had come successfully through a global depression, Major only ever seemed to be clearing up after his own messes.
The risk to Rishi Sunak is that, just as in the mid-1990s, the recovery of the economy does not translate into the recovery of the governing party.
After all, the Prime Minister has calmed the markets and reversed the spike in government borrowing, but he is getting no credit for it. No doubt inflation will peak and a measure of growth will return. But will voters simply see this as a return to the status quo ante? Back to Square One rarely wins elections.
There are other cards for the Tories to play. If illegal immigrants arrive in Rwanda, and the number of Channel boats drops in consequence, things could look very different. And Labour and the SNP have placed themselves on the wrong side of the gender debates.
Most elections, though, come down to the economy. It is curious to read reports of pro-growth policies – the capping of the cost of new regulations, the repeal of EU rules, the maintenance of unaffordable childcare ratios – being reversed.
True, the impact of each of these reforms would have been limited but, at a time like this, we should be pulling every lever.
I wonder whether, following the failure of Kwasi Kwarteng’s budget, our leaders have simply decided to avoid all risks. Even reforms like those just mentioned, which would not cost the Treasury a penny, seem to be being shelved for fear of critical headlines.
In more normal times, steady-as-she-goes is a sensible approach.
But we are not in normal times. Leaving the EU should have led to immediate and radical deregulation. The end of the lockdowns should have led to urgent fiscal retrenchment. Sluggish growth should have led to supply-side reforms.
But, again and again, there is temptation to say nothing, do nothing and hope for things to turn around on their own. And that, in our current circumstances, won’t do.