Although many hoped for it, and many feared it, few expected it. When the Brexit earthquake struck, it upended assumptions that politicians, business leaders and economic forecasters had relied on for decades. Even as we have tried to disentangle the causes of this popular revolt, the waves have rippled through the bedrock of British politics. In June 2017, they produced a major aftershock in the snap general election.
Support for the different political parties seesawed in a wholly unpredicted way. The outcome was full of paradoxes. The Conservative Party increased its share of the popular vote by over 5% to over 42%, but we lost our majority in the House of Commons. Theresa May owes her precarious grip on power to the remarkable success of the once nearly defunct Scottish Conservatives – and to the political wizardry of their leader, Ruth Davidson. Labour, led by its most left-wing leader ever, and campaigning on its most socialist manifesto since 1983, increased its share of the popular vote to over 40% for the first time since Tony Blair in 2001. An election that was expected to herald the decline of the two-party system and the rise of third parties delivered instead the near obliteration of UKIP and a decline in support for the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Greens. This was an extraordinary election with an extraordinary result.
Ever since I was first elected onto Westminster Council 20 years ago, I have known that it is from the liberal centre right that Britain is best governed – and, more often than not, wants to be governed. As we used to say at the think tank I set up in the early 2000s, it’s all about “achieving progressive goals through conservative means”. Constantly frustrated by my party’s tendency to lose its appetite for reform and slide back into a reactionary defense of the status quo, I have toyed with lots of different ways of giving it a more permanent anchor in the reforming centre ground. In 2010, shortly after David Cameron formed the country’s first post-war coalition government with Liberal Democrats, I argued for a formal electoral pact – with the short-term goal of ensuring a continuing majority for a coalition government on the liberal centre right. But with the hope that the Liberal Democrats would eventually split and that many of the free market reformers in their ranks would join the Conservative Party and, in turn, help make our party more liberal.
Then in 2013, despairing at our lame attempts to appeal to voters in their 20s and 30s, I floated the idea of reviving the National Liberals, which had once been an entirely separate party but had ended up forming a permanent alliance with the Conservatives while retaining a separate name, and some distinct ideas and traditions. In its modern reincarnation, I envisioned it operating as a niche brand in the Conservative family, a bit like the Cooperative Party in the Labour movement. Candidates would be allowed to run as National Liberal and Conservative, but would need to be approved by the board of the National Liberal Party and sign up to a set of liberal principles. In this way, candidates in urban areas and university towns might be able to agitate for progressive reform within the broader Conservative Party.
Since then we have had two general elections and a referendum. They have turned things upside down. In the 2015 election, the choice between a Conservative leadership team with strong approval ratings and a solid economic record, and a weak Labour leader who seemed all too likely to be pushed around by the formidable leader of the Scottish Nationalists, was perfectly designed to produce a squeeze on the Liberal Democrats, already unpopular after 5 years in coalition government. So David Cameron increased the Conservative share of the vote to 37% and won the Party its first parliamentary majority since 1992. I was in awe of what he and George Osborne had achieved. Perhaps my earlier fears had been unfounded, and they had already succeeded in entrenching the Conservative Party’s position on the liberal centre right. Perhaps they didn’t need any of my clever wheezes to consolidate our position as a party with a commitment to progressive reform and a truly national appeal. For the next year, I put my head down. I focused on shaping two progressive reforms of my own: the apprenticeship levy and the Sainsbury review of technical education.
Then everything got blown apart by the referendum. Blown apart in the sense that David Cameron and George Osborne, the architects of the Conservative election victory and the leaders who had positioned the party in the reforming centre ground, were immediate casualties. But blown apart also in the sense that the broad Conservative coalition that they had created was riven in two by passionate disagreement over Brexit. The younger, university-educated, urban voters who had been attracted by the Cameron government’s modern tone and moderate policies were now depressed by the prospect of Brexit, and furious with the Conservative politicians who had brought it upon them. If it was hard to persuade them that the Conservative Party offered them a contemporary prospectus before the referendum, once Theresa May moved inexorably to implement the people’s verdict and promised to take Britain out of the single market, what was hard became impossible.
We now see the result. As a party, we have won over a large number of new voters – mostly working class, older and strongly pro-Brexit. We have secured victory in places like Mansfield where Ben Bradley was the first Conservative to be elected since the constituency was created in 1885. That is a great prize. If we want to be a national party governing with the support of at least 40% of the vote, we need these voters, indeed we should celebrate them. But we have paid a painful price. We lost diverse, urban seats it took us well over a decade to win, and make our own: Battersea, Bristol North West, Brighton Kemptown, Bath, Bedford, Stroud, Ipswich. We have driven the aspirational, educated voters, who only started listening to us after David Cameron was elected leader in 2005, into the arms of Jeremy Corbyn. It’s bad enough that Labour won the support of 70% of 18-24 year olds (although it is great news that this generation has begun to see the point of voting.) It is much worse that a socialist prospectus also won the support of 52% of voters aged 25-49. The age at which a voter is more likely to have voted Conservative than Labour has shot up from 34 to 47 [https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/06/13/how-britain-voted-2017-general-election/]. The Conservative Party risks the fate of the Church of England: a slow slide towards extinction.
My twenty-year dream of a modern liberal Conservative Party, winning elections by delivering progressive reform, looks broken-backed. But I am optimistic that Humpty can be put back together again.
The next election will not be defined by Brexit, as the 2017 election was. In June, the British Electoral Survey found that far more voters picked Brexit as “the single most important issue facing the country” than any other issue. And they placed their election cross accordingly: the survey tracked the voting behaviour of the same 30,000 voters as in 2015 and found that for many their position on Brexit overrode their usual party allegiances. They switched their vote. The Conservatives won large numbers of new votes from people who voted Leave. And Labour won even larger numbers of new votes from people who voted Remain.
In 2019 the UK will leave the European Union – and probably enter a two-year transition in which most things stay the same. The most likely date of the next general election is June 2022, a year after that transition has ended. Unless there is an economic cataclysm, and the point of the transition is to avoid it, Brexit is very unlikely to be “the single most important issue facing the country” for most voters when they next head to the polls. As Winston Churchill discovered in 1944, and John Major rediscovered in 1997, at general elections voters focus on the future. They don’t stop to say thank you or even damn you. They move on. So we will have an opportunity to win back the support of younger professional voters in cities and university towns. We must start now to reassure them that we really do share their values. We must offer them modernity and change, not a tired old defence of the status quo.
When I listen to the Conservative MPs first elected in 2015 and 2017, I hear women and men of all ages and backgrounds, who look and sound like modern Britain, who combine a passionate commitment to universal ideals with a practical focus on getting stuff done and making things work. They want to change things in this country to make it fairer, stronger, greener and more dynamic. When they confront important choices about our party’s future direction, I am confident that they will want to see the Conservative Party banging the drum for liberal values and progressive reform – as it has often done when it was most successful.
Over the next few months I will be publishing a series of essays, setting out the policies and priorities that would take Britain in the right direction after Brexit. My agenda is explicit. I want the Conservative Party to stand up for liberal values, and to draw on its deep wellspring of common sense that tells it that a successful Britain has to be a modern one. I hope that people will engage with my ideas, respond to my suggestions and improve them. Not just Conservative MPs, councillors, members and supporters but anyone who believes in the power of ideas to change things. At the end of the process I will publish a book bringing together the chapters that have survived the public mauling. On the way, I hope that I will have contributed something that helps the Conservative Party renew its confidence, and work out what it needs to do to govern well and win again.