You’d think a vicar’s daughter would have known it. It’s the book of Proverbs, 16:18. Just a year ago I wrote this about the impact of seeing someone like me being PM in my lifetime. The ending feels eerily prophetic. It’s something that never left me for the past year.
Last Tuesday, I was a speaker at an event. I was told I have been very popular, and my usual reaction was to think I must have been told so out of politeness, but on reflection I can see why it might be true: I’m not known for shying away from criticising my party in a spirit of fraternal correction. I don’t just spout party lines and soundbites. I’m also clumsy and endearing, and people usually respond well to being genuine whether or not they agree with you. But most importantly, I think that what really shines through is that I am an idealistic person of conviction, and a certain level of humility that lacks in politics. It seems weird to talk about being relatively humble in the same breath as criticising the party, but bear with me.
It may sometimes sound like “if only I ran things, it all would be better”, which can appear quite prideful, but a gift many have said I have is that of understanding people and insight, and humility isn’t about self-deprecation, as much as I am an Olympic gold medal at that. Let’s go back to when Ed Miliband stood down, and a large amount of Tories tried to ring the election so that the option they thought unelectable, hard-left backbencher Jeremy Corbyn, could become party leader. The complacency in thinking that nobody could possibly vote for his vision for the country based on his personal appeal was staggering, and that’s a bandwagon I have criticised. It is true that I had a tongue in cheek Death of the Labour party Halloween costume, but if we think of the Labour party historically then this merger with all sorts of thuggish socialist and communist groups can still be seen as a kind of death anyway. It’ll be interesting to see now the MPs who called for Corbyn to go rally behind him what kind of party will actually come out of this.
In the past two years, we have seen populist movements win all over the place, and it surprises me how they never thought the strategy of a campaign around personal attacks (which lost us the Mayoral election) was not going to backfire when we were facing an anti-establishment candidate. Add to the mix the Labour manifesto, and the hung parliament of the exit polls should have been predictable back then. Things became even worse with the poorly thought through and presented Tory manifesto, whose greatest merit (read only) was the return of the word unionist in the way we talk about ourselves. It’s not a surprise that Scotland saved our bacon, not only Ruth Davidson is a marvellous candidate in her own right, but she also had the favourable position of being the only truly unionist option, when Labour have been propping up the SNP in the councils (although I can’t say I’m not happy to have seen Labour’s Ian Murray with a 15K majority, as the Spectator’s guide to tactical voting in Scotland for the election they defined as the election on the union suggested the Tory vote should go to Labour to keep out the SNP).
I was quite favourable about Theresa May when she took over from David Cameron for what looked like the rest of the five years we had fought so hard in 2015. She wasn’t my choice, but she appeared to be all that she has claimed to be. We needed someone to negotiate hard treaties with people who have disliked Britain forever: she didn’t need to be likeable, inspiring or charismatic. Then someone thought it was a good idea to gamble it all in an election. It was in our pocket, they said. Corbyn will never win, they said. The youth vote will never show up, they said. If an attempt to avenge the referendum result wasn’t enough, with the mobilisation and peer pressure making Labour look like the only option for young people because of the anti-austerity narrative, it was dangerous territory long before Corbyn bribed them with free tuition fees etc. In such a scenario, when you have a populist leader with a vision that inspires people, losing your core vote is the last thing you want to do, but somehow we managed that.
London MPs have paid the highest price, being in a Remain part of the country with a high youth presence and a leadership that people called one nation but frankly was clearly splitting north and south from the start by making it all about the leader and Brexit, rather than healing the divisions.
There was so much potential after the vote in June to reach out with a true one nation offer, one that would have remained true to the core values of the Conservative party against an attempt to get hold of the centre ground at whatever cost. In Disraeli’s novel Sybil, the two nations are the rich and the poor. Fast forward to 2017 and you have different rich and different poor in whichever part of the country you look. The principle behind it stands. The Primrose League was founded to carry on his legacy, and had as objective to fight for free enterprise among others, including working for the common good and the promotion of Conservative principles. It was the first vehicle for women involvement in politics. At the turn of the century, Bolton alone had as many members of the Primrose League as the whole Labour party nationally. 100 years later, our leadership has run a campaign that stood for nothing, and only attacked the opposition.
I have to say, I’m proud of the campaign we fought locally, even if we were one of the seats that were victims of the effects of the national campaign, but I can’t say I don’t share the feeling of betrayal that many constituents have expressed on the doorsteps, as they were undecided about whether they would still show up to support an MP they thought was great when he was representing such a party. It is quite heartbreaking. I’ve joined the party because I believed in Cameron’s vision, and we were lucky his election campaign didn’t take the turn of this one, or I wonder whether his charisma would have sufficed. Cameron understood our legacy better than his detractors have ever given him credit for. He took the principles and applied them to the circumstances of the time. His foreword to Lord Lexden’s Brief History of the Conservative Party (titled “A Party of Change”) is a testament to that. I’ve always been of the opinion history will be very clement with Cameron, and will also recognise the merits of his coalition partner Nick Clegg, another sad loss of last night. I have my doubts historians will ever be kind to Theresa May after this one.