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Conservative infighting only helps Starmer

John Baron MP
June 5, 2023

The received wisdom in some Westminster quarters is that the Conservatives are heading for a 1997-style wipeout at the looming General Election. The Red Wall will crumble; the Blue Wall will surrender to the Liberal Democrats; the SNP will sweep all before them in Scotland.

I continue to believe this is wrong. With clear heads and a Prime Minister who espouses competence, compassion and integrity, there is no reason why the Conservatives should not win an historic fifth term - particularly as the public come to focus on the opposition parties’ agenda.

However, winning against a Labour Party which clearly scents power – look how New Labour big beasts are coming out of the woodwork – will be harder without what has historically been the Conservatives’ secret weapon: unity. Some Conservative MPs seem determined to fall out with each other, invariably weakening our appeal and standing with the public whilst allowing journalists to file easy copy about party splits.

Some Conservative MPs seem determined to fall out with each other Quote

Part of the problem is that the Conservatives’ traditional unity took a battering during the Coalition and Brexit years. MPs who felt frustrated at too much pandering to Liberal Democrat opinion found outlets for their feelings – with the recently-constituted Backbench Business Committee and a Speaker well-disposed to Urgent Questions being ready agents.

The outcome of the EU referendum, and the general vacuum of authority at the centre after Theresa May lost her majority, led to open warfare amongst Conservative MPs.

The 2019 General Election result helped matters but the pandemic prevented MPs from getting to know each other as well as they might. The Partygate scandal was deeply unpopular with constituents and caused friction between MPs and the leadership, even if it was a different issue which ultimately led to Boris’ resignation. 

The two leadership elections last year revealed profound differences – so much so that Labour Party spinners simply broadcast the candidates’ own campaign videos rather than producing their own material.

All of this has contrived to give Sir Keir Starmer a relatively easy ride into a seemingly commanding poll lead. Yet this lead is based upon the Conservatives’ mistakes and unpopularity rather than his own hard yards, and in-depth polling supports the view that this lead remains soft. 

The local elections were painful for the Tories but lost in the drama is the fact that Starmer underperformed. No wonder some Labour figures are onto him to up his game, and when it comes to connecting to the public it is clear he is no Tony Blair.

At Westminster barely a week goes by when a backbencher or minister doesn’t criticise a government policy. This is not helpful with the wider public. We should not be doing the opposition’s work for them. Rather than complaining, quite strangely, that Rishi Sunak is a closet remainer, Conservatives should train their fire on our real opponents – those on the benches opposite us.

Whilst we squabble, on issues like health and defence Labour are beginning to land blows. Wes Streeting is an articulate and passionate champion of the NHS and is relaxed about using the private sector to assist with waiting lists. Meanwhile, John Healey is clearly making a bid for Labour stewardship of the Armed Forces by opposing personnel cuts and hinting at greater spending.

On top of this, a Starmer government could be much more radical than many realise. Labour could raise taxes much higher, permanently, and talk of removing the reliefs that we have implemented since 2010 and even of raising capital gains tax. 

All the sensible anti-strike legislation we have recently passed is set to be repealed, with some in the Labour movement also relishing the chance to repeal the Thatcher-era legislation too. There is a reason every post-war Labour administration has ended in economic failure.

On constitutional matters, few believe that Labour would be able to resist some form of deal with the SNP if they were in touching distance of power – with a second independence referendum an obvious SNP dealbreaker.

Labour also plans to embark on major reforms of the House of Lords, including an elected second Chamber to rival the Commons under plans penned by Gordon Brown.

The Liberal Democrats are poised to demand the abandonment of first-past-the-post in favour of proportional representation as the price of their support, and even if this support is not needed Labour may plough on anyway. There is not even the suggestion of a referendum, as there was in 2011 for the Alternative Vote system which was roundly rejected by voters.

Labour also intends to reduce the voting age to 16 and is even thinking about extending the Parliamentary franchise to resident EU nationals, something that did not happen even when we were members of the EU and the equivalence of which does not happen in other European countries. With the other ‘reforms’, it is a naked attempt to guarantee future Labour governments.

In Rishi Sunak we have a leader whose decency, competence, and attention to detail – not always evident in his immediate predecessors – is without question. He has already had early successes with the Windsor Framework, the CPTPP, an economy which is defying the sceptics, and the agreement with Albania – which has already led to sizeable numbers from the small boats being returned to Tirana.

Conservatives are lucky to have him, and those few who advocate another leadership contest are severely misguided.

Those who believe a spell in opposition would be a good ‘detox’ for the party are similarly misguided. As someone who spent their first nine years on the Opposition benches, take it from me that opposition is a miserable, hard slog where events shape you and the Government holds all the cards, for year after year.

There is no guarantee of a swift return to government – history suggests once governments are in, they are in for the long run.

The General Election is at least a year away. Much can change in that time, especially when the economy gathers pace, inflation falls somewhat and the cost-of-living eases. If one believes the myriad of opinion polls, the gap with Labour is closing under Rishi, and some colleagues still underestimate the public’s understanding of what’s at stake.

Rallying around the Prime Minister, backing the Government and attacking the Opposition will stand the party in good stead, and I continue to believe will propel us into a fifth consecutive term.

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John Baron is the Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay and a former Shadow Health Minister.

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