Robert Halfon: Beware the bear traps. The Conservatives’ biggest threat is complacency.

2 Jun

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

I remember the 1992 election. I was at Exeter University at the time completing a Masters degree, and can recall some events like the back of my hand. Neil Kinnock’s infamous Sheffield Rally being a special highlight.

On the Saturday after the poll, I was in a pub where I used to go every week for lunch and catch up with the newspapers and a very good chilli con-carne. The papers were full of commentary discussing the death of Labour and the new Tory Century.

The Guardian had a bitter cartoon by Steve Bell, about the Conservative success, which said “we rule you, we fool you… but you still vote for us”. John Major had not only achieved an election victory against the odds – and many predictions – but the Tories had gained the highest popular vote since the Second World War.

Five years later, Labour was in power under Tony Blair, with a massive victory. Conservatives were reduced to a small rump of MPs from only the heartiest of blue heartlands. The Tories were not to win a proper healthy majority until Boris Johnson’s extraordinary victory in December 2019. There was even a book published (in 2005) during the long opposition years called The Strange Death of Tory England’.

After the 2019 General Election success, and the remarkable local elections last month, history is repeating itself. The newspapers on May 8 May 2021, were almost word for word of what was said on May 3 1997. It is the Tory Century, Labour is finished etc etc.

Well, I like to think of myself as an optimist, and I definitely believe that Johnson has proved himself again and again, to be an election winner. But, for a number of reasons, I really worry when so many in our party and in the media think that is all over for the centre-left.

First: Events. Who can tell what will happen by Christmas, let alone by 2024?  Who could have ever imagined the last 16 months? Before the vaccine programme, Tory poll projectory last year was on a downer. As Donald Rumsfeld once said, there are so many unknown unknowns, that the idea all will be plain sailing for Tories is for the birds.

Second: The Labour Party. Ok – so Keir Starmer, can’t see the wood from the trees, and as yet has not laid a real glove on Johnson. But Labour remains a hugely motivated historical movement that has at its core a powerful message of helping the underdog. The moderate left are not just going to sit by forever and become extinct like political dodos. At some point – whether it comes before 2024 or after – they will reinvent themselves and renew. It happened under Blair and will happen again under a new Leader.

Third: A “Progressive Alliance”. It is not beyond the wit of the soft left, to form an alliance with the other left-of-centre parties.  This does not necessarily have to mean a “progressive” coalition in Government, but for Labour to stand down in parliamentary constituencies where another left party is in a good place to win – and vice versa. Such things are not implausible. After all, it happened on the centre right in 2019, when the Brexit Party stood down in most Tory seats to ensure a clear Conservative majority parliament for Brexit.

Fourth: The economy and jobs. So far, the economy appears to be bouncing back from lockdown. But what happens if there is a severe recession, or unemployment doesn’t ratchet down fast enough. At some point the £400 billion plus of taxpayers monies, spent by the Government during the pandemic, is going to have to be paid back. There will be tough decision after tough decision, which will dent Tory popularity in the polls.

Fifth: The thing that I perhaps fear the most is Tory complacency. We have many strengths, but when things are going well for us politically, our party has a tendency to put our foot in it – to say unsayable things, to be perceived as harsh and uncaring and appear to be on the side of the well-heeled rather than the just-about-managing – both in language and policy. The drip, drip, drip of these things can be corrosive. It has happened before and is one of the reasons why it took the Tory Party until the 2019 election to be properly trusted again by the public.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a misery-guts or as the Prime Minister calls “a gloomster”. Far from it. I am excited by the election victories we have had (after the local elections, my own Harlow constituency now has a majority Conservative Council for only the second time in the town’s history). Our Red Wall victories are enormous and the MPs who represent those seats are very impressive campaigners. Moreover, the levelling-up agenda – especially on skills – gladdens every Conservative. I just hope we remember there are enormous bear traps ahead, some of which will not even be of our making.