22 May 2022

Weekly Briefing: Careful what you wish for…

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A strange affliction seems to have befallen some Tory MPs: apparently they want their own party to lose office at the next election.

The basic logic of the argument, related in recent columns by both James Kirkup and James Forsyth, is comprehensible, if not very convincing. Briefly put, a fifth term with a reduced majority would be a sclerotic nightmare, redolent of the Major years. Far better, therefore, to have Keir Starmer struggling to cobble together a doomed coalition government, then return, revitalised, in a few years’ time.

It’s a strange sort of war game/thought experiment, in that it combines arch pessimism about the immediate future (which those same Tory MPs have some agency over), with pie-eyed optimism about what might happen next (over which they would have very little control). It’s reminiscent of football fans who tell you the best thing that could happen to their benighted club is the cold shower of relegation, only to discover a few years later that they are still playing in the lower leagues.

More to the point, being in opposition is awful. As notes CapX contributor Tom Harris, who served as a minister when the wicket was getting decidedly sticky for Labour, ‘government is always a better alternative to opposition’.

Not only do opposition parties have to struggle for airtime over the ones actually running the country, but the infrastructure around the party wilts and diminishes, making the whole task of ‘renewal’ that much more difficult. Former ministers with retinues of SpAds and civil servants suddenly find they are a mere ‘spokesperson’ with perhaps a couple of advisers.

For a salutary warning, just look at the clown-show that the Labour Party became after a few years out of government, or indeed the 18 years it took the Conservatives themselves to form a majority government once they lost power in 1997.

Just as importantly, the Tories’ experience in recent years shows two things very clearly: one, that a party can renew itself decisively while still in office. Two, that trying to second-guess the British public is a fool’s errand.

The fact the party is floundering in the polls shouldn’t be an excuse to throw in the towel – this government is only two and a half years old and it’s spent much of that time battling a pandemic: rather, it should be the impetus to discover a bit of the fire in the belly.

And if some Tories don’t care for the direction of economic policy under Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, they really aren’t going to like it if Labour gets in, especially if – as Forsyth suggests in his column – a Starmer-led government tries to change the electoral system to Single Transferable Vote.

There’s a more basic point here: the ‘lose to win’ scenario puts relatively short-term political tactics over what is best for the country.  Politics may seem like a parlour game a lot of the time, but it’s pretty serious stuff. That involves mess, compromise and, most of the time, being in government to get things done – not giving up and hoping for the best when the going gets tough.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.