It’s another crunch week for the Conservative Party. The mood is bleak, the Sunak administration’s failure to show love to many of its MPs is coming back to haunt it, and, as Suella Braverman said on Wednesday, the party is facing electoral oblivion.
In truth, this has been the case for some time. As I keep saying, nearly two-thirds of our 2019 voters say they won’t be voting for us. That, not enthusiasm for Sir Keir Starmer, is why Labour is ahead.
For those voters, immigration is the top issue. They have heard much from us on this subject but seen no delivery. That’s why it matters that, in my personal view – I await the definitive verdict of the European Research Group’s Star Chamber – this week’s Rwanda Bill falls short.
This isn’t perfectionism: it’s that it won’t do the job it’s supposed to do. It doesn’t even close off all recourse to UK courts, and it certainly doesn’t prevent claimants going to the European Court in Strasbourg, which will not be bound by the UK-Rwanda Treaty or any UK legislation. The usual NGO and legal army will exploit these loopholes with a wave of court cases, and we will be timed out before the election.
This matters because that coming election is crucial, for one very simple reason. It is the first election for 50 years at which British voters can change every policy. Last time round, our electors could not change large areas of policy on trade, much economic regulation, agriculture, fisheries, the environment, social and employment law, energy, immigration, human rights – and much more. Only the EU could do that. But after Brexit, Britain is a free country once again.
The downside is that we can hand those powers to Labour to exercise, too. And Labour can choose to give some or all of them back to the EU. It seems all too likely that it will.
It’s easy for Sir Keir to praise Lady Thatcher. She was last in power 30 years ago. Whatever hysteria he thereby awakens in his own party, in the end it’s just words. But on Brexit, the live issue of today, I’m still waiting. Waiting for him to say that he, and Labour, got it wrong on leaving the EU, got it wrong in pushing for a second referendum, got it wrong in preferring government from Brussels.
Instead, we get grudging words about making Brexit work. We know what Labour means by that: a gradual drift back into the EU tractor beam, the customs union, the Single Market. But then why would you expect the man who said he preferred Davos to Westminster to suddenly decide he likes parliamentary sovereignty and national freedom, after all?
Unfortunately, over the past year, the Government has drifted in this direction itself – as is shown by Labour’s support for the capitulation of the Windsor Framework and the broader signalling of closer collaboration on defence, net zero, and more. But nothing irrevocable has yet been conceded.
That’s why this election is of historic significance. And it is why I am very worried that too many Conservative parliamentarians seem to have given up on it. The centre-Left, with whom we must group the Prime Minister after last month’s reshuffle, seems to be happy with losing decently, to the approving applause of the establishment. But I also hear people on the Right saying that the election is already lost and that the important thing is that the Left “owns the result” so the Right can take control of the smoking wreckage after the crash.
I don’t want to lose, I don’t believe we have to lose, and I am not prepared to give up without a fight. It’s obvious the current strategy is not working. The Conservative Party is frozen rigid in its enemies’ gaze. The polls are getting worse, not better. If we are to get back those 2019 voters then we won’t do it by tilting further back to Camero-Blairism, by smoking bans or tinkering with A-levels, or by failing to deliver on crucial commitments like immigration.
It will be by setting out a mainstream conservative path on taxation, spending, the culture wars, net zero, migration, public service reform, and much more. Look at what Boris achieved in six months in 2019. A genuinely conservative agenda, advocated by ministers who looked like they really believed in it, could change things fast.
Many of us worked very hard, against sometimes impossible-seeming odds – and against the opposition of many so-called Conservatives who are now once more close to the Government – to make Britain a free country again. I don’t want to see that supreme national effort to recover our freedom just thrown away because the Conservative Party can’t be bothered to fight.
So if there is anything to be done to get us on a better path and increase our chances of winning, then I believe it must be done. That must, of course, include improving this Rwanda Bill so that it does the job it is meant to do. But MPs also have a responsibility to consider more broadly whether they think the current path can take us to an election win. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be resigning themselves to it – they should be doing something about it.