What will the Tories say to voters at the next election? They’ll be pitching for a historic fifth term, which is ambitious even in the best of times. That there have been three prime ministers in this term alone is one of the least dramatic points of this period. The current occupant of Number 10, Rishi Sunak, is trying to persuade his MPs to stick with him at least until that election, with many of the brightest and best considering quitting before they get shoved by their voters. In less than two years’ time, Sunak will be advancing an argument for why the electorate should stick with him, too. But what can he possibly say?
Once a party is in government its best election pitch is to say to voters that it’s safest to stay with the devil they know, rather than risking the opposition party. Party leaders tend to point to everything they’ve achieved, before asking voters for more time to finish the job. Sunak has two problems with this. He doesn’t have a lot to point to in the way of Conservative achievements from the past decade and a bit. It’s also not entirely clear what the job is that only the Tories can finish, given his focus on fixing a mess made far worse by his own party.
Recently, I’ve taken to quizzing senior Tories about what they feel is their party’s big legacy from their time in government. Their responses follow the same pattern. A long pause. A sigh. “Well, there’s Brexit. And we can be really proud of what we’ve done with education. We need to talk about that more.” And then another pause. Some, after a little head-scratching, also mention universal credit, saying that this huge and lengthy welfare reform has changed the benefits system for the better and made people excited about getting back into work. The Tories do need to talk about these two early achievements, especially their decision to continue the New Labour education reforms beyond the ambitions of their original architects. Michael Gove has had many incarnations since being education secretary, but his legacy in that job will outlast everything else he’s done – besides campaigning successfully for Brexit.
Gove wasn’t the architect of “levelling up”, but that tends to be the next big reform that Conservatives mention when they reflect on the past decade. They don’t, though, talk about it with the same sense of pride. Instead, it’s with a great deal of regret that they reflect on their failure to produce anything tangible in time for the next election. Levelling up will be one thing the Tories will ask voters to stick with them for so they can finish the job. But there are only nascent signs of it beginning, which means it is still very difficult for the party to say “look at what we’ve achieved so far”. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt thinks it is worth pursuing, but is keen to change the model entirely. His approach would be to allow elected local representatives, particularly mayors, to be able to solve their infrastructure problems locally, without having to bang down doors in Whitehall by bidding endlessly for small pots of money here and there.
This follows the old “northern powerhouse” approach of the David Cameron government, where city regions won more powers over local services, but it has its political problems. Talk to any Conservative in Greater Manchester, for instance, and they will be spitting tacks, not just about Andy Burnham, but about George Osborne for creating the elected mayoral post that has made him, in their view, such an unaccountably powerful figure. In 2014, when Osborne was on the brink of announcing his northern powerhouse and the directly elected mayoral post, 1922 Committee chair and Altrincham MP Graham Brady warned him the night before that he would be making it harder for the Tories to build support in the city region because it would create a local Labour celebrity who wouldn’t be properly scrutinised or achieve anything meaningful. Those Tories and others will see Hunt’s move as injecting the already powerful Burnham with political steroids.
Burnham took on devolved responsibility for the NHS, but there has been little evidence this has made any improvements for patients in Greater Manchester. It has simply become a microcosm of the national problems with the health service: long waits for elective treatment and ambulance queues caused in part by a social care sector so dysfunctional it is an inaccuracy to call it a “system” as that would suggest some kind of coherence. The Tories will not be able to trumpet their achievements in the health service between 2010 and 2024. The best they can hope for is that the public, most of whom will be on a waiting list or caring deeply about someone who is, will agree the backlog is caused largely by Covid rather than long-term mismanagement of the health service by the government.
The NHS isn’t the only institution with a backlog blighting lives and baffling practitioners who are trying to get to grips with delays. Last week, Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, divided his time between defending complaints about his behaviour and responding to questions from MPs about the horrendous waits in the criminal justice system. The numbers aren’t as eye-watering as in the health service: 61,000 cases waiting to go through the courts, and more than 7 million waiting in the NHS. But victims of crime are having to wait years before they give evidence in distressing cases. Here’s one example from Labour MP Meg Hillier, in the Commons last Tuesday: “One of my constituents was violently attacked and given a court date three years later. Her seven-year-old witnessed the attack, and the perpetrator keeps pestering her, breaking non-molestation orders, leaving the police pretty powerless, because he knows there is no traction.” Raab claimed that the backlog had been going down until strikes by criminal barristers, which Hillier, who is chair of the public accounts committee, also disputed. Either way, there is little legacy in justice that the Tories can boast about.
A cynic might point out that court backlogs don’t have the same salience as the NHS – which is also one reason the criminal justice system has been so neglected for so long. Another secretary of state who was answering awkward questions last week on a matter that upsets voters was Suella Braverman, who was grilled by MPs on the home affairs committee about illegal immigration and asylum seekers and failed to give answers on what is a safe, legal route to claiming asylum in this country, before facing official figures showing net migration at a record high. This high-immigration legacy might not matter so much if Braverman and the party had committed to it being a part of their post-Brexit vision, but instead they’ve spent the past decade sticking doggedly to a target randomly made up in opposition, of net migration in the tens of thousands, despite ample evidence they will not meet it. It’s like a runner boasting that they will complete a marathon in two and a half hours, but who doesn’t train and tries to run the course in a pair of Crocs.
At least most of the party is cheering on attempts to deal with the Channel crossings, which Tories and Labour see as being the real bit of immigration that voters get angry about. That’s in contrast to the Tory legacy on housing, where they’ve spent the past decade working against one another in such a spectacular fashion that at any stage you could read a story about planning reforms failing amid a furious row. This is happening again as more planning reforms are on the brink of failing, with ministers and whips alike expecting Gove to cave into rebels led by Theresa Villiers who want to make top-down housing targets merely advisory. Many Tories have signed Villiers’s amendment because they think the latest reforms will cost them their seats. Some, though, have merely done so because, in the words of one of their number, they’re “a bit bored”.
Sunak and his colleagues are having conversations with bored and desperate MPs this week as many decide whether to stand at the next election. He is offering them a glimpse of the argument he will present to voters about sticking with the Tories. One wavering MP describes the PM’s pitch thus: “There is a path, we can get there, but people are going to have to stick with the party. Stay positive, stay loyal. We have done the first difficult bit on the economy and things could look up from here. If we get on with the job and govern competently, things will look different.”
Not many MPs genuinely believe that the Tories will win the next election, but they believe the fervour with which Sunak says it and hope this means they can at least restore their reputation as a party even if they lose. If voters only remember the greatest hits and forget the messes, that will be a defeat worth celebrating – not least because it seems unlikely.
• Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator
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