Conservatives mustn’t panic. Here’s how we fix this mess

Ben Wallace
Ben Wallace

Friday 2nd May 1997 was a profound moment in my life. The day before, I had voted early before making my way to Wellington barracks to mount the Queens Guard at Buckingham Palace. I remember my hand hovering over both Conservatives and New Labour.

My experience in the Army to date under the then Conservative Government had not been great. Constantly falling budgets had meant me and my men had experienced the hollowing out of our forces first hand. Perhaps Labour might do better? But they were also set on joining the Euro and devolution, so I cast my vote for John Major and set off to do my duty.

It was a hot, sunny day and by the time I had dismounted guard the next day Labour had swept into power. It was fascinating to watch the comings and goings of the old and the new PM at the Palace, just as the Old Guard I captained handed over to the New Guard. With the Regimental quick march of ‘Highland Laddie’ ringing in my ears, I hung up my bearskin and headed home.

It was a landmark moment in British Politics. Blair’s landslide and his determination to abandon dogma seems scarily similar to this election. Change for change’s sake was the motto, then as it is now. I remember watching the 10 o’clock news that night and feeling that the Conservative Party needed to be fixed. That it had forgotten to support those people, like my soldiers, who despite the odds had bettered themselves. I decided to do something about it. I joined the Party and got stuck in. Before we could get back power, we needed to fix ourselves.

For Labour it was all over in 13 years. The once optimistic government was booted out of office leaving debt, broken public services and the echoes of the Iraq war behind it. The hard left that we all believed Tony Blair had expelled crawled from under whatever rock they had been hiding under to capture the Party again. Out went New Labour, in came Corbyn – and with him, defeat. But there are also lessons for us in Labour’s return from the wilderness.

Firstly, Governments should remember that from the day they enter Number 10, power starts to drip away. The sheer bureaucracy and process of a modern government sap away momentum, manifestos get duller and more qualified by the Treasury and Government lawyers, and over time reshuffles take their toll. The “bright young things” become older and wiser, but also grow tired of the daily fight with the machine and seek careers elsewhere. Back benchers get bored and the devil finds work for idle hands. And events divert attention. It is the reality of governance.

But for now Labour have at least 4 years. The focus will be on them for the next few months. In the meantime, former colleagues and the Conservative Party must not be pushed by the media into a quick fix. Who cares if the next PMQs has a stand-in? We don’t need all the answers immediately. Take the summer, make the conference part of the leadership race and use it not to divide but to bring together.

Nor should we panic over Reform. Many of their voters want us to listen to their frustrations. Across Europe voters are worried by the massive scale of illegal immigration. It is no longer good enough for mainstream politicians to make excuses for why they can’t deal with it. We absolutely have to find a solution. But it will take time.

We need to pause, regenerate, and recuperate. We must work at building a united team, and listen to what the voters are saying. We must dispense with these silly little groups within groups at Westminster. We should remember that our core beliefs and values – freedom, enterprise, order, fairness and security – are the unifiers of our party. And we have to craft a genuine economic narrative to grow the economy and create wealth.

We should take heart, too, that the Country hasn’t turned on us in the way it did in 1997. Behind the headlines, Labour’s vote share is hardly a revolution. Many of us have seen a lot of this before… landslide, Referendum Party, disillusioned voters. Wasn’t it supposed to be the end of the Labour Party in 2019?

The first step in rebuilding must be to pick someone to gel together the Tory tribe. Not just a top team, not just the parliamentary Party but the whole tribe. They don’t have to be perfect, but they do have to want to lead a team not a clique. Let us start to rebuild from the bottom. Celebrate what we did right these last 14 years, be confident rather than arrogant, and above all speak to ordinary people and businesses rather than to ourselves.