The Conservatives are far behind Labour. They must unite and fight

Robert Murray cartoon
Robert Murray cartoon

There can be no doubt, following the elections on Thursday, that the Conservatives face the fight of their lives. The fight, they must understand, is not with one another but with a Labour Party that threatens to tax, spend and borrow too much, and remake the country in its own image.

Amid the gloom, there were glimpses of light for the Tories. Ben Houchen, who will one day surely play a bigger role in the future of the party and the country, was re-elected in what was a Labour heartland only a decade ago. While the overall Conservative result was undeniably poor, the national equivalent vote share is estimated by Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher at 34 per cent for Labour to the Tories’ 27 per cent.

It is important not to over-interpret the meaning of the Rallings and Thrasher study. It is, they pointed out, a projection, not a prediction, and there are many differences between these elections and a general election.

There were no elections in Scotland, for example, where the SNP is losing ground. In England, votes for minor parties may shift to the established parties. Turnout will be higher. Tactical voting may increase. And Reform – which poses a meaningful threat to the Tories – did not field candidates everywhere.

The polls suggest that in a general election Reform would fail to win one seat, but could tip the balance from Tory to Labour in more than 50 constituencies. While frustrated Conservative supporters might be tempted to lodge a protest vote, in trying to blow the bloody doors off they might find they detonate the whole van. They should note the words of Richard Tice, the Reform leader, who this weekend said he was “delighted” that votes for his party led to the election of a Labour mayor – and the narrow defeat of the estimable Andy Street – in the West Midlands.

With five, six or at most eight months until a general election, what do Conservative MPs do now?

The first thing is to acknowledge that the majority of their colleagues wish to be led into the election by Rishi Sunak, and respect his authority. Posturing, positioning and score-settling puts personal ambition and vanity above the interests of the party and the values it represents. It also does nothing to change deeper trends: for example, the Tories did worse on Thursday where there were more mortgage holders, confirming painful interest rates are a political problem.

Anybody who spends time on the doorstep – and as the Tory candidate in West Suffolk, I do – knows that unity is vital. Voters have been disconcerted by the repeated changes in party leadership and associated changes in direction of the past few years. They dislike dissent and open disagreement. They want the Conservative Party to show it can deliver a plan for the country.

This brings us to the second point. Sunak does have a plan. He has halved inflation and soon, he hopes, interest rates will fall. He is reforming the tax system and cutting National Insurance. He has passed his immigration law and – while the scale of deportations necessary to stop the Channel crossings may require fundamental change to human rights laws – the first flights to Rwanda are likely to start soon.

The few weeks before the local elections were among the best the Government has had under Sunak’s leadership. The commitment to increase annual defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP, the enforcement action following the Safety of Rwanda Act, and new policies to reform welfare all showed higher energy levels, a better demonstration of values, and established dividing lines with Labour.

That the Tories performed poorly on Thursday does not mean this activity failed, but that the more assertive and confident approach needs to be sustained for longer. The party must not respond to the election results with passivity, but with renewed purpose.

And so to the third point. The Government has its plan, but it needs more. Work to reduce inflation and jump unnecessary legal hurdles to enforce immigration laws is necessary but not sufficient; technocratic but not emotionally moving. The Tories need to give the public a vision for how the country can be in five years. There is understanding out there that a global pandemic, a war in Europe, trouble in the Middle East and global inflation have made life harder, but what future does the party offer?

This cannot be the stuff of fantasy – overall tax cuts made possible by radical spending cuts, or by borrowing from bond markets more relaxed than they were when Liz Truss tried the same – but it can be positive and appealing. More support for parents, more house-building, more investment in infrastructure. A new post-18 education system to train our young and reskill older workers. An immigration system that brings the numbers down to a bare minimum. A country that values the things that matter: family, community and the dignity of work.

And communication matters. Tory HQ needs to play to the PM’s strengths. People see that he is intelligent, hard working and morally serious, and that – not being cool or funny on social media – should be more than good enough. The party should also recognise that the PM needs moments where he surprises the country: when voters sit up and notice qualities they had not previously seen in him. These moments – which might have been over the anti-Israel marches, for example, or the crony capitalism affecting Thames Water – must be authentic and meet a real need for a prime ministerial intervention.

Above all, the party needs to be clear that it puts forward policies because those policies reflect its values – values it shares with many millions of Brits – not electoral necessity nor opportunism.

Fortunately, this does not require anything as dichotomous as the choice presented as chasing “moderate” swing voters or defectors to Reform, for the issues at stake – economic growth, the quality of local services, the level of immigration – matter to everybody.

Of course, things are difficult. Of course, we would not choose to start from here. But in the real world nobody ever gets that luxury. The PM and his party need to fight – all the way until polling day.