Oliver Letwin acknowledges the fundamental challenge facing the Conservative Party, but in this case the devil lies not in the details but rather in the still-elusive big picture
Well, here it is – the first crack in the dam, the first “what’s gone wrong with the Conservative Party and what can we do to fix it?” book to hit the shelves has just been published by Sir Oliver Letwin MP. Entitled “Hearts and Minds: The Battle for the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the Present“, Letwin offers what will presumably be an insider’s take on when, where and how the Tories managed to lose their way.
(I have requested but not yet received a review copy – below are my reflections based on the book launch video recently uploaded to YouTube).
You can watch Letwin speak at the book launch, hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies, in the video above – and judge for yourself whether you think that Letwin is warm or cold when it comes to identifying the key issues and proposing a plausible way back for British conservatism.
I watched the video with fairly low expectations. Letwin is one of those Conservative politicians who traded for a long time on euroscepticism only to swing his support behind remaining in the EU for reasons which amount (as far as I can tell) to a failure of courage. He was devastated at the EU referendum result and tried to persuade David Cameron to remain in office in the immediate aftermath. And given that Cameron had glowing things to say about the book in his enthusiastic review, any account of past Conservative failures which pleases David Cameron (who presided over so many of them) must, to my mind, be pulling a fair few punches.
But I did not get that sense from Letwin’s speech. Admittedly Letwin kept it very high-level and deliberately eschewed talking about much of the content of the book. But he did echo themes which this blog has been shouting about for years when he said:
Between now and the middle of 2021 or so I think we have time on our hands, which we mustn’t misuse. And that actually means recapturing the intellectual initiative and not getting mired in administrative detail but going back to these fundamental principles and trying to show how they apply to the great issues of our age, in a modern medium and a way that feels relevant so that whoever is the leader as we go into that election – long after Theresa has taken us through Brexit – actually has something much better and bigger than just a set of policies dreamed up at the last moment for a manifesto. In the end, principles and ideas have to precede the practical policies and the selling of a message.
I agree with everything aside from the Tories having “time on [their] hands”. There is precious little time for a leisurely period of introspection on the part of people who generally speaking still will not admit to having done anything wrong (or at least admit only to tactical rather than ideological errors). The only thing which will likely save the Conservative Party in time for 2022 (barring another round of fratricidal blood-letting within the Labour Party) is if the Tories are taken over by a new force which is already at work re-establishing conservative principles and building policies from them while the dying husk of this present administration focuses on Brexit and tries not to drop the ball elsewhere.
Just as the Thatcherite insurgents took over the Conservative Party in the late 1970s, the Cameron clique captured the party in the mid 2000s and Jeremy Corbyn’s crew seized the Labour Party back from the centrists in 2015, any immediate Tory revival will only come about if a new group can get organised and push the old guard out of the way when Theresa May steps down or is deposed.
Letwin pretty much goes on to admit this, undermining his own initial optimism, when he says:
Of course I didn’t design things so I wouldn’t be in government now, I found myself rudely ejected from government, as I describe in the book. But actually, had I thought about these things more clearly I would have ejected myself because actually those poor people – my former colleagues, many of them great friends of mine – now find themselves imprisoned in the ghastly operation of trying to manage this country through Brexit, keep its finances in order, carry through all sorts of administrative actions which are very necessary but totally dull and fend off thousands of marauders and put out hundreds of forest fires, and therefore haven’t the remotest amount of time to think about these basic principles. That falls to the rest of us who are outside that machine and can actually do this thinking now, and that is our sort of duty.
The dreary job of managing the technocracy and steering the ship of state while being assailed from all sides is not conducive to bold, inspired policymaking, as Letwin acknowledges. That’s why radical, purposeful governments which command the kind of mandate required to push through their agenda rarely conjure themselves into existence while the party is still in power. This kind of introspection is usually prompted only by being in opposition with no expectation of returning to power unless something significant changes.
But on the positive side, because Theresa May is so singularly useless at picking out talent and surrounding herself with the brightest and best, several key conservative assets are currently languishing on the backbenches with nothing but time on their hands to work the issue – to commit to a real debate about what it means to be a conservative in 2017, and how to apply conservative solutions to 21st century challenges.
The likes of Kwasi Kwarteng, James Cleverly and George Freeman spring to mind, though there are doubtless some others. One does not necessarily have to agree with their every last public utterance or voting record, but these people at least look as though they may have some original ideas to contribute as well as personal career aspirations to advance. If Priti Patel could just get herself fired as International Development Secretary (a role in which her talents are wasted) then a potentially promising senior Tory would be freed up to join the revolution, too.
I shall read Letwin’s book with interest. The sense one got from the CPS book launch was of a group of rather self-satisfied veterans from Thatcher’s day, still dining out on the victories of an earlier era, who have not really had to formulate a new worldview or policy platform since the 1970s and are still unconvinced as to why they should do so now. Like ageing rock stars they go around belting out the old favourites to a dwindling band of nostalgic devotees while the rest of the world slowly moves on without them.
The accomplishments from the Thatcher years should be recognised and never diminished, but it is hard to imagine this Dad’s Army think tank saving the day for a second time, forty years later, without a significant injection of new blood (I don’t know enough about their newly appointed acting director Robert Colvile to know whether or not such a transfusion is likely).
And likewise, while Oliver Letwin’s book may well offer some diplomatically worded assessments of past Tory shortcomings, if he really does have the ideas needed to reinvigorate the Conservative Party one wonders why they were not flagged to Theresa May and Lynton Crosby before they ran one of the dreariest, most uninspiring general election campaigns in living memory.
Ever the optimist, though, I hope to be pleasantly surprised by what he has to say.
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