“To govern is to choose. To appear to be unable to choose is to appear to be unable to govern.” – Nigel Lawson
There was a time, not long ago although it seems a world away now, when the electoral pitch of the Conservative Party strongly featured its willingness to make difficult decisions, to address reality rather than pretend problems away. It was a pitch which won respect and therefore won elections. So how is the party doing with the two most urgent decisions facing it today: who to choose as leader, and what then to do about Brexit?
On the first the party seems to have made up its mind. Barring some major dislocation, Boris Johnson will be the next leader and PM. His campaign has been very professionally run, and (remarkably, given the views about him which fellow MPs and party members have expressed over the years), he is garnering support from almost all factions of this heavily divided party: Steve Baker and Therese Coffey, John Redwood and Damian Collins, IDS and Oliver Dowden, Bill Cash and James Brokenshire. He is getting an impressive level of support from MPs, and seems set to do even better amongst party members.
At first sight this broad support seems a good thing: all major parties are broad coalitions, and successful leaders like Thatcher, Blair and Cameron united their parties to lead them to victory. They did this by winning the internal political arguments and imposing a coherent vision on policy and positioning, drawing their parties in to support their platforms. In each case, even if individual MPs and party activists didn’t like parts of that positioning, they were prepared to unite around it.
Alas, in this case the apparent consensus in support of Boris across much of the party doesn’t reflect any such unity and acceptance. Boris hasn’t won any arguments. He hasn’t convinced the doubters that one course or the other has to be followed. In fact he hasn’t even attempted to do so, in the way that Rory Stewart or Dominic Raab have tried to do. Instead, his pitch is the diametric opposite of facing up to difficult choices. As he famously said, “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it”. That is how he is getting support from both have-ers and eaters.
The party, in apparently going for Boris as leader, is simply postponing, yet again, the moment where it has to face up to reality. This is not unity, it is failure to choose. The choices which have to be made, very soon indeed or they’ll be made for us, are the same as and just as painful as those which the party, and parliament, have failed to make for six months. Postponing the decisions for a few more months won’t make them any easier, but will contribute to the inevitable decline in the fortunes of the Conservative Party, which seems determined to throw away all three of its main electoral strengths of pragmatism, business-friendly financial discipline, and facing up to difficult decisions.
Richard Nabavi is a regular contributor to Political Betting and is currently a member of the Conservative Party.