The Tories must change course, or be wiped out

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer steps off the stage after speaking during a post local election rally with newly elected East Midlands Mayor, Claire Ward
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer steps off the stage after speaking during a post local election rally with newly elected East Midlands Mayor, Claire Ward

Let me cut to the chase so no one wastes time overanalysing this: we must not change our leader. Changing leader now won’t work: the time to do so came and went. The hole to dig us out is the PM’s, and it’s time for him to start shovelling.

I’ve lost count of the number of election counts I’ve attended over the decades. But I can’t recall one quite so dramatic as the one in Fareham this week. We shed tears of sadness because long-standing councillors were convinced we had lost, followed by tears of relief upon realising we had scraped through.

In my small part of the world Conservatives held on because of strong local leadership, low council tax and well-managed local finances combined with first-class local services. It pains me to say it, but I must be honest: it was with no thanks to the national Conservative “brand”. Fareham Tories bucked the trend despite the national government.

From the south coast to the Midlands or London, wherever I knocked on doors and spoke to our voters, the message was too often: “We’re lifelong Conservatives but you’re not a Conservative Party anymore. We can’t vote for you. Show some backbone.” You don’t need the psephological expertise of Prof John Curtice to see that the national Conservatives are in deep trouble. This week’s earthquake must be a wake-up call.

It would be reckless to treat the victory in Teeside as evidence of the path to victory at the general election. Ben Houchen’s win is an outlier, focussed on his leadership and thanks to his delivery, not the Government’s. More illustrative are the 400 council seats lost, the crushing result in London and the loss of heartlands like Dorset and North Yorkshire.

If we continue like this, we will hand over the keys of power to Labour without much of a fight, either because we have failed in the scramble for the centre ground or because we are destroyed from the Right by Reform. As I warned in November, the Prime Minister’s plan is not working and he needs to change course. Otherwise, we are heading for a Keir Starmer government with his band of hard-Left fanatics set to undo Brexit, open our borders and meddle pointlessly with everything from employment laws to the number of bins you put out each week. Any Tory who says otherwise is insulting your intelligence.

But all is not lost. The public are not rushing to vote for Sir Keir, though they feel sorely let down by us. They want a reason to vote Conservative, but we are failing to provide them with one. We need to be frank about this if we are to have any chance of fixing the problem.

On tax, migration, the small boats and law and order, we need to demonstrate strong leadership, not managerialism. Make a big and bold offer on tax cuts, rather than tweaking as we saw in the Budget. Place a cap on legal migration once and for all. Leave the ECHR to stop the boats. Tangible improvement to our NHS and tougher sentences for criminals. Start holding failing police chiefs to account so that antisocial behaviour, shoplifting and knife crime are actually sorted out. Take back control of our streets from the extremists. And instead of paying lip service in guidance on transgender ideology in schools, let’s actually change the law to ban the abuse of our children.

The Westminster team needs to stop ploughing on regardless and start listening to our troops on the ground and the British people who are crying out for a reason to vote Conservative. We’re not here to pander to the civil servants or the Times columnists arguing for incrementalism so we can spare their dinner party blushes. Either we start fighting to win now, or we’ll have no one else to blame when this week’s political earthquake is made to look like a mere tremor come the general election night.