What will the Tories tell voters in the next election? They will propose a historic fifth term, which is ambitious even in the best-case scenario. That there have been three prime ministers in this mandate alone is one of the least dramatic moments of this period. Number 10’s current occupant, Rishi Sunak, is trying to get his MPs to stick with him until at least that election, with many of the brightest and best considering stepping down before being pushed by their constituents. In less than two years, Sunak will make an argument as to why the electorate should stick with him too. But what can he ever say?
Once a party is in government, its best electoral presentation is to tell voters it is safer to stick with the devil they know, rather than risk 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 much to point to in terms of Conservative achievements over the last decade or so. It’s also not entirely clear what job only Conservatives can pull off, given his focus on fixing a mess made far worse by his own party.
Recently, I began polling senior Conservatives about what they feel is their party’s great legacy from their time in government. Their answers follow the same pattern. A long break. A hiccup. “Well, there is Brexit. And we can be really proud of what we’ve done with education. We need to talk about it more.” And then another pause. There are those who, after a few headaches, also mention universal credit, saying that this huge and long welfare reform has changed the benefit system for the better and made people excited to go back to work. The Conservatives need to talk about these first two achievements, especially their decision to continue New Labor’s education reforms beyond the ambitions of their original architects. Michael Gove has had many incarnations since he was education secretary, but his legacy in that job will outlive everything he has done, as well as successfully campaigning for Brexit.
Gove was not the architect of “levelling”, but this tends to be the next big reform Conservatives mention when they reflect on the last decade. They don’t talk about it, however, with the same sense of pride. Instead, it is with great regret that they reflect on their inability to produce anything tangible in time for the next election. Moving up the ranks will be something Conservatives will be asking voters to stick with them so they can finish the job. But there are only dawning signs of its inception, meaning it is still very difficult for the party to say “look what we have achieved so far”. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt thinks it is worth pursuing, but he is keen to change the model completely. His approach would be to enable local elected representatives, especially mayors, to be able to solve their infrastructure problems locally, without having to slam doors in Whitehall by bidding endlessly for small amounts of money here. and the.
This follows the old ‘powerhouse of the north’ approach of David Cameron’s government, in which city regions have gained more powers over local services, but it has its political problems. Talk to any Conservative in Greater Manchester, for example, and they’ll spit taunts, not just at Andy Burnham, but at George Osborne for creating the mayor-elect post that made him, in their view, such an inexplicably powerful figure. In 2014, when Osborne was on the verge of announcing his northern powerhouse and direct-elected mayor post, 1922 committee chairman and Altrincham MP Graham Brady had warned him the night before that it would make it harder for the Conservatives build support in the city region because it would create a local Labor celebrity who would not be properly scrutinized or achieve anything of significance. Those Conservatives and others will see Hunt’s move as an injection of political steroids into the already mighty Burnham.
Burnham has taken devolved responsibility for the NHS, but there has been little evidence that this has brought about improvements for patients in Greater Manchester. It has simply become a microcosm of the national problems with the health service: long waits for elective care and ambulance queues caused in part by a social care sector so dysfunctional that it is an inaccuracy to call it a “system” because it would suggest a sort of of consistency. The Conservatives won’t be able to trumpet their successes in the health service between 2010 and 2024. The best they can hope is that the public, most of whom will be on waiting lists or care deeply about someone who does that is, will agree the backlog is caused largely by Covid rather than the government’s long-term mismanagement of the health service.
They have spent the last decade doggedly clinging to a randomly opposite goal of net migration of tens of thousands
The NHS isn’t the only institution with a life-ruining backlog and bewildering professionals who are trying to come to terms with delays. Last week, Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, divided his time between defending complaints about his behavior and answering questions from lawmakers about horrendous expectations in the criminal justice system. The numbers are not as striking as in the health service: 61,000 cases waiting to go through the courts and more than 7 million waiting in the NHS. But crime victims have to wait years before testifying in distressing cases. Here is an example from Labor MP Meg Hillier, in the House of Commons last Tuesday: “One of my constituents was violently attacked and given a court date three years later. Her seven-year-old boy witnessed the attack and the perpetrator continues to hassle her, breaking non-molestation orders, leaving the police pretty helpless, because she knows there’s no traction. Raab said the backlog had dwindled to strikes by criminal lawyers, which Hillier, who is chairman of the public accounts committee, also disputed. Either way, there is little legacy in justice that conservatives can brag about.
A cynic might point out that court backlogs are not as important as the NHS, which is also one of the reasons why the criminal justice system has been neglected for so long. Another secretary of state who answered embarrassing questions about an issue that shocks voters last week was Suella Braverman, who was questioned by Home Affairs Committee MPs on illegal immigration and asylum seekers and did not given answers on what is a safe and legal way to apply for asylum in this country, before addressing the official data that show a migratory balance at the highest levels. This legacy of high immigration might not matter much if Braverman and the party were committed to being part of their post-Brexit vision, but instead have spent the last decade stubbornly sticking to a haphazardly created goal in opposition, of net migration. of tens of thousands, despite ample evidence that they will not reach it. It’s like a runner who brags about completing 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 the majority of the party is encouraging attempts to tackle the Channel crossing, which Tories and Labor see as the real part of immigration voters get upset about. This is in contrast to the Tory heritage in housing, where they have spent the last decade working against each other so spectacularly that at any moment you could read a story about the failure of reform planning in the midst to a furious quarrel. This is happening again as more zoning reforms teeter on the brink of failure, with ministers and whips alike expecting Gove to give in to rebels led by Theresa Villiers who want to make top-down housing targets merely consultative. Many Conservatives signed Villiers’ amendment because they think the latest reforms will cost them their seats. But some have done it simply because, in the words of one of them, they are “a bit bored”.
Sunak and his colleagues are having conversations with bored and desperate MPs this week as many decide whether to run in the next election. He is giving them a taste of the argument he will present to voters about attachment to the Tories. One hesitant MP describes the prime minister’s tone thus: “There is a path, we can get there, but people will have to stay loyal to the party. Stay positive, stay true. We had a tough first part of the economy and things could get better from here. If we get on with the work and govern competently, things will look different.”
Not many MPs actually believe the Conservatives will win the next election, but they do believe the fervor with which Sunak says so and hope this means they can at least restore their party reputation even if they lose. If voters remember only the greatest successes and forget the messes, it will be a defeat worth celebrating, not least because it seems unlikely.
• Isabel Hardman is an assistant editor on The Spectator