The last few years have been a good reminder that periods which excite historians are rarely as happy to live through. The phrase “this is the most important election in a generation” has been so over-used by politicians and pundits as to provoke automatic eye-rolls from voters, but on June 8th the two competing visions for our country are more starkly different than any since the 1987 election at least. So, the most significant election in thirty years at a minimum. Add in that this government will have to negotiate the biggest change in British international relations of the post-war period, as we leave the EU, and manage the demands of the SNP for a second independence referendum, and the enormity of the choice to make is no longer hyperbole.
An election of course is not just about policy, and in 2017 more than most it is about electing a government and Prime Minister who can deliver on their platform and govern securely in the challenging years ahead. It may not sound exciting, but forming a viable government is the first and vital job of any Prime Minister. People have understandably grown bored of the Conservative campaign slogan ‘Strong and Stable government in the national interest versus a coalition of chaos’, but like all election catchphrases it has at its essence a fundamental truth (or version of the truth depending on your political point of view). The last few years have been ‘exciting’ enough, surely some stability is what people crave right now?
The choice at this election is between a stable single party government, a Conservative Party more united than it has ever been in my lifetime, or chaotic loose ‘coalition’ government, whether Labour wins an overall majority or not.
The case against Jeremy Corbyn and the current Labour Party
Less than 12 months ago more than three quarters of Labour MPs voted no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, dozens of his Shadow ministerial team resigned and he could not fill his front bench. None of those underlying realities have altered, if he wins the election outright that will buy him a modicum of authority, but the Labour Party remains deeply split and more divided than at any point since the 1930s. There is no certainty, and indeed I would argue likelihood of it surviving a full term in office. Just at the moment when the country needs their government to stand firmly up for the national interests in Article 50 negotiations we would instead face a government consumed by its own intractable political differences. The hatred between the warring Labour tribes is real, and from talking to Labour friends none believe it has any hope of being resolved whilst Jeremy Corbyn and the far left of the Labour Party remain in control and unwilling to listen to their moderate colleagues.
To turn to Jeremy Corbyn, no one can deny that, bar some slip-ups on major policy costings, and refusing to answer voters’ questions on the nuclear deterrent, he has had a good campaign. He has been helped by the media, who demonised him excessively and personally in the last two years, voters seeing him now do not recognise the monster depicted in tabloid headlines. Even his political opponents in the Labour Party often say he is personally civil to them. I do not know Jeremy Corbyn and will not attempt to make judgements on his personality, but he can be judged on what he has said and done, on his record.
Jeremy Corbyn has spent his entire political life refusing to compromise with others, and opposing the difficult choices government has to make – on public spending, on terrorism, on the nuclear deterrent, on defending innocent lives and British interests abroad. He has consistently sided with enemies of the British state and refused to back the Union, even now he disagrees with his own Labour Party leader (yet again showing his unwillingness to work with people in his own party – a vital skill for any PM) on whether there should be a second independence referendum in the near future. Yet, despite all this he claims he wants to lead the government of the United Kingdom. All the evidence suggests he would hate the job, or fail to manage when, as David Dimbleby put to him on Friday’s Question Time, the idealism and reality do not match.
We all know people who hold similarly inflexible and dogmatic political beliefs, but most of them grow out of it, as you age you realise the world is not black and white, you yearn for the teenage days life was so simple. All the evidence we have is that Jeremy Corbyn has not gone through that process, he would be the most ideologically dogmatic Prime Minister we have had in the modern era (for all her reputation, many of Mrs Thatcher’s colleagues can attest to her pragmatism in power).
Maybe Jeremy Corbyn would change with high office? Maybe, but he has not shifted his beliefs or compromised them in over thirty years in Parliament. He talks of a compassionate world view, but has not favoured a single British intervention since 1945, he opposed our defence of British citizens invaded by Argentina in 1982, he opposed our humanitarian and UN sanctioned interventions in Kuwait and Sierra Leone. That is not a compassionate world view, it is turning away when others ask for help.
His attitude to the IRA has been deeply troubling, inviting them to the House of Commons against the pleas of his own party colleagues that it was distasteful and wrong. This is not ancient history as some like to claim, he was a serving MP at the time, and has refused to apologise or rescind any of his previous positions on IRA terrorism, so we have to assume he still holds those views. At a time of uncertainty in Northern Ireland as the devolved administration remains in crisis, he has not provided reassurance, rightly saying their future is up to them, but not giving the people of the province the backing of his government. Essentially he seems to view their problems as a non-domestic issue, like Sierra Leone or Kuwait.
The nuclear deterrent issue is where many of the consistent themes running through Jeremy Corbyn’s political career crystallise most clearly, his dogmatic views and unwillingness to listen to colleagues, his refusal to wholeheartedly back the national interest. He faced his most difficult questions from voters on Friday night’s Question Time when, repeatedly challenged, he refused to answer whether he would use the nuclear deterrent in retaliation. He has made clear his opposition to nuclear weapons over decades, and his personal support for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Nobody likes nuclear weapons, however the knowledge of how to make them cannot be undone, something he fails to recognise. In refusing to confirm that he would use trident in defence, despite that being official Labour policy in the manifesto he is demonstrating his unwillingness to respect both his party’s wishes and the wishes of British voters who would vote for that manifesto. He renders our national defence system obsolete at his own personal whim. If national defence is the biggest responsibility of any Prime Minister and government in Westminster, Jeremy Corbyn fails the test, unlike previous Labour Prime Ministers.
The other big test the next government faces is the article 50 negotiations. On the EU Jeremy Corbyn has displayed the same personal leadership failings as on the nuclear deterrent. Many Labour MPs, supporters and party members were apoplectic at his failure to lead a strong Labour remain campaign, and many believe he personally voted to leave the EU, which would have been consistent with his politics over the previous 30 years. Theresa May was criticised for not being more vocal for Remain, but she was not Conservative leader at that time and in fact gave one of the most considered (and therefore credible) speeches arguing for Remain of the whole campaign. Corbyn displayed a complete absence of leadership and in the months since little has changed, the only issue he has been at all strong on has been his request to grant a unilateral right to remain to EU nationals in the UK, once again failing to put British interests first. The government has been 100% clear it wants to grant those rights, and repeatedly pushed for a joint statement from the EU27 and the UK before negotiations began, but key EU countries refused to do so. For the government to grant those rights unilaterally without guaranteeing the rights of British citizens in the EU would be a gross dereliction of responsibility. On this first test, Corbyn has already failed to demonstrate the understanding of how the negotiations should be handled and when pressed on other key issues has been repeatedly vague and talked idealism, not reality.
These themes, idealism over pragmatism, a refusal to work with and listen to other voices, even on his own side, weak leadership on the most important issues, an inability to stand up for British interests and the United Kingdom have all become apparent during Jeremy Corbyn’s two years as Labour leader. I have barely touched upon it, but his manifesto is all promises and no reality, pork barrel politics in its purest form. His wavering attitude to the Scottish IndyRef2, against the wishes of the Scottish Labour Party, his poor leadership on the EU question, his demonstrable failure to reassure voters on the nuclear deterrent are all concrete examples of this failure of leadership. Voters have picked up on it, in repeated conversations on the doorstep and with Labour acquaintances worries about Jeremy Corbyn and his fitness for the Premiership have been raised again and again. Hopefully on June 8th those worries will translate into votes for the alternative option before voters, and it is to that I now turn.
The Case For Theresa May and the Conservatives
It is too easy to be negative, and whilst I think in the binary choice for Prime Minister it is vital to outline the failings of the candidate you do not support, everyone needs positive reasons to vote, and so here is why I believe Theresa May and the Conservative Party deserve people’s vote.
There has been criticism over the Prime Minister’s decision to call an election and her reasons for doing so, but consider what she herself has said and what the EU reaction to the decision was. She has said she wants a secure and stable government to lead Britain through the Brexit negotiations and the transition period beyond, the EU has likewise welcomed the election and its implication that the conclusion of Article 50 negotiations will not be butting up against an approaching election. This is in both sides interests. So the Prime Minister was right, in my view, to call the election on these timing grounds alone, having one government through the whole period will be beneficial to our negotiating hand and reduce uncertainty and risk at a time when it is already high.
The other reason the Prime Minister cited was the need to get the final deal through Parliament (including the House of Lords). It is right that when people voted to leave the EU beyond the basic fact of leaving there was not an explicit list of what that entailed, though an end to freedom of movement as we know it and the jurisdiction of the ECJ on UK shores were clearly big themes in the campaign. The Prime Minister has now laid out the outline of what kind of deal she is looking to strike with the EU – a comprehensive advanced free trade deal with add-ons in areas such as security cooperation to reflect the unique nature of our relationship with the rest of the EU. She has ruled out single market membership, I have written before on why as a Remain voter I support leaving the single market and will not rehash those arguments here. Put simply, single market membership, a rule-taker still paying in and accepting ECJ rulings, but with no say over how rules are formed, is a far worse deal than EU membership. So the Prime Minister is seeking a mandate to ensure the House of Lords, which contains many individuals still opposed to leaving the EU full-stop, respects the will of the British people and does not seek an excuse to block the final agreement.
The same is true of the House of Commons, without an explicit mandate for single market exit, many MPs may block the final agreement, similarly there are a handful of MPs from the alternative point of view who may seek to prevent any agreement involving transitional arrangements or compromises. One only has to look at the Maastricht votes of the 1990s to see what the Prime Minister wishes to avoid. Labour, despite at that time being a firmly pro-European party, voted against the Maastricht Treaty for reasons of pure political opportunism to damage the government. Our exit agreement from the EU is too important to be held political hostage by an opposition looking to an election in a few months and seeking to divide the government. The Prime Minister’s decision to hold this election should prevent that scenario playing out.
Enough on why this election was needed – why should the Conservative Party and Theresa May receive your vote?
On Brexit, the most important issue facing the country, the Conservative Party is more united than I can ever remember behind the vision of seeking a special partnership with the EU whilst forging a new global role for our country and developing new trading relationships outside the single market. The Prime Minister has seven years of experience of negotiating with the EU, in her six years as Home Secretary she was respected as a tough negotiator and oversaw big changes in our Justice and Home Affairs cooperation, where we opted out of some EU elements and back in to others. Nobody pretends these talks will be easy, which is why at this time more than any other we need a united and experienced team negotiating our exit relationship, standing up for British interests and securing the best deal possible. I believe that to be Theresa May and the Conservatives.
The campaign has been bumpy, but governing is about much more than electioneering, it is about having the right plan for the country, and, crucially, being able to execute it. The Conservative Party’s great strength, in contrast to the left of the Labour Party, has always been its ability to adapt to the changing times and needs of the British people. So the Conservative Party manifesto reflects that, and whilst it is still too early to talk about ‘Mayism’, what is clear is that the Prime Minister’s brand of Conservatism is seeking to respond to the challenges of today, not the battles of the past. Hers is a more economically interventionist government than that of David Cameron, as the continued repercussions of the great financial crisis and the effects of globalisation ripple through politics and voters’ minds. Margaret Thatcher once said ‘the individual is the sun, and the state is the moon, shining with borrowed light’. Conservatives still believe that the state’s job is to let the individual shine, but we have always believed there is a role for government. Specifically there is a chance for it to address market failures and give ordinary people more control over their own lives. On housing and energy the market is not functioning as it should, and the party’s manifesto sets out clear policies to try to address that, without destroying that market, which as history shows, is not a viable economic or political solution.
On the issue of the moment, terrorism and security, the government, unlike Jeremy Corbyn, has strongly supported counter-terrorism powers for the police and security services, and has protected and boosted the counter-terror budget, despite Labour opposition in 2015. Jeremy Corbyn talks about engagement, we all believe in engagement, but talking alone will not prevent believers in a murderous extremist ideology from wreaking havoc on our streets. Corbyn’s ideological opposition to the security services blinds his ability to see what is necessary in the 21st century war on terror.
On the deficit, whilst believing in lower government spending, Conservatives have always recognised that this cannot be dogmatic and governments must adjust to the circumstances, which is why the party has committed to slowing the pace of deficit reduction. The alternative from Labour is ever more spending, passing on the national debt to the next generation, it is very easy to promise how to spend money when trying to win an election, but the consequences afterwards are either disappointment or fiscal irresponsibility. The Conservative Party has demonstrated commitment, despite risk of unpopularity, to solving the national debt crisis, in a way which has reassured our creditors and kept the UK on a sound financial footing. The same cannot be said of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Similarly, the party is clear it is seeking to govern for everybody and all parts of the United Kingdom. It is against scrapping tuition fees, believing students should pay some of the cost of their education back when they can afford to and non-University attendees should have not have to shoulder that burden as part of general taxation. Scrapping tuition fees and raising taxes would be a regressive move, and I write that as one of the first years to have to pay tuition fees, even then I believed it was morally right and still do. The Prime Minister has also made clear her passionate belief in the Union, in these tumultuous times we are stronger and better off together. The SNP are seeking to hold a second referendum, against the clear wishes of most Scots, just three years after the last and at a time when Scotland is already suffering economically from the North Sea oil industry decline and our relationship with the EU is yet to be determined. Conservatives are committed to supporting and protecting our successful Union of nations through this period, standing up for the interests of all parts and people of our United Kingdom.
A united and experienced government ready to lead through challenging times, committed to the United Kingdom, and seeking to build an economy and society that works better for everyone on our islands. That is the positive case for voting Conservative at this election. It is also in all our interests, including the Labour Party’s, to see the far left of that party beaten and beaten badly on June 8th. Only then will the moderate wing of the party be able to wrestle back control. Only then can Britain have a decent opposition holding government to account on Brexit and beyond, leading to better and more accountable government, something all Conservatives would also welcome. I strongly believe we have a great future in this country, but we need good and strong government in the coming years to help mould a better Britain in the post-Brexit world.