‘Conservatives are forever on the back foot, even when the government does something good’
(Illustration by Michael Daley)
“What a smart suit.” So said the Prime Minister to me in the Chamber of the House of Commons during the voting on the EU Withdrawal deal. I was wearing a chestnut corduroy jacket and, of course, was charmed. I also felt bad. For the first time since 2014 I had voted against the government — and not just any old measure, either. I had rebelled against the EU withdrawal deal — a central plank of government policy, and something which the Prime Minister had worked on negotiating for the past two years.
Although I had voted Remain (I would describe myself as a “six out of ten Remainer” — recognising the undemocratic nature of Brussels but believing in alliances of democracies), I decided after the referendum to do all I could to ensure that the wishes of the people were carried out in order to maintain trust in our democracy.
As I said in Parliament on the final day of the debate: “I do not for a moment believe that the people were not informed or were too stupid. Far from it. In fact, it was us politicians who were the foolish ones for not listening to the anguish of many working-class communities over many years, with people struggling with the cost of living and the pressure on our public services, and dnnoing the right thing by working hard yet facing obstacle after obstacle in their daily lives. My view is that any withdrawal agreement needs to follow the wishes of the British people.”
I felt that the withdrawal agreement, as presented, not only kept us in a Spaghetti Junction of EU bureaucracy with no time limit or unilateral right to leave the backstop, but also meant taxpayers fronting up £39 billion without even a trade deal agreed.
So I went into the No lobby against the deal. But without any pleasure. It felt a bit like being a member of a football team on cup final day with the manager telling me to go out on the pitch and me refusing because of a disagreement with the his strategy. Whatever your views on the deal, it was a grim day for the Conservative Party.
Two days later, I was in the Prime Minister’s office with a few other MPs invited to make a case for Common Market 2.0 (otherwise known as the “Norway plus” or European Free Trade Area option). Over Christmas, a thoughtful Labour MP, Lucy Powell, and I wrote a pamphlet, in essence making the case for Britain joining Efta after we leave the EU. The UK would take back control of our fish and our farms by ending participation in the CFP and CAP, would take us out of the ECJ, and there would be no more “political union” and all its accompaniments. True, there would not be an absolute control of freedom of movement, but a unilateral right to have an emergency break, in the event of specific societal, economic and environmental circumstances. There would be no Northern Irish backstop, but an existing UK/European Economic Area-wide customs arrangement until the frictionless border issue has been resolved. Efta seems to me to square the circle — keeping Britain in an alliance of democracies but also delivering the referendum result.
I took delivery of a retro record player from a well-known catalogue store over Christmas — at a real value for money price — and it came on the same day as ordering. A pretty good example of the free market at work.
The kind man who delivered it recognised me and we started chatting. He apologised for not voting. He said his family would never vote Conservative as they thought the party was always on the side of the rich and did not speak for working people. He did not say this with any malice, but it got me thinking as to just how many people say or think the same thing.
Brexit, Austerity, Selfish, Tin-eared, Angry, Rich, Dogmatic. I suspect that if you asked many people why they don’t like Conservatives, or what words they associate Conservatives with, some of these might come up. To those who really hate us, the term often used is “Tory Bastard”.
And this is the Conservatives’ fundamental problem. The Conservative Party has pretty negative connotations, so Conservatives are forever on the back foot, even when the government does something good.
If we knock on a door when canvassing, the public are unsure of our values. They may have problems with how Labour runs the economy, but at least they think their heart is in the right place, helping the underdog.
I don’t think the Conservative Party will ever succeed in winning the hearts and minds of the British people until the public recognises that we have a moral message too and that we are a values-based political movement.