My column for ConHome: It’s 8th May 2015. Dear Prime Minister… a confidential memo from his Chief Whip.
by Stephen Tall on February 13, 2014
Here’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. It’s a piece of fiction, not least because it imagines a scenario in which the Tories have won an outright majority. That starting point appeared to confuse ConHome’s Ukip-infused readers, who didn’t know whether to laugh or cry in the comments. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.
Date: Friday 8 May 2015, 07.45am
Subject: CONFIDENTIAL: A blueprint for the future
Dear Prime Minister,
May I extend my warmest congratulations to you on your outright election win? I can only imagine how you must feel at having proved your doubters wrong, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. I was, as you know, never one of your doubters. The 2015 election was always there for the winning for two simple reasons.
First, the economy. We were, of course, fortunate that growth kicked in at just the right time – soon enough for the voters to begin to feel it, late enough for them not to want to risk turfing us out in favour of the other lot. We have George to thank for that: it was a master-stroke to cut harder than necessary in the first budget, delaying the recovery by a couple of years!
And the second reason was ‘the other lot’: Labour never recovered from the recovery. Having spent three years pinning their hopes on economic failure, it was impossible for them to counter our line that “the medicine is working, don’t let Labour tax it” (so good to be back working with Saatchi again).
In fact, I almost felt sorry for Ed Miliband in the end. Losing wasn’t really his fault. There was a certain inevitability that Labour would fail to bounce back from their worst election defeat since 1983 at the first attempt. Poor Ed jumped on the pendulum at the wrong moment and there was nothing he could do to change its metronomic direction.It reminded me a lot of 2001 and William Hague. Decent guys, poor timing.
Enough of what has been, though: on to what will be!
You kindly asked me to set down some thoughts about your immediate priorities. There are three, I think.
1. Keep the Lib Dems on board.
This is, I know, a priority you share. I believe you spoke to Nick Clegg last night to offer your congratulations to him – I imagine he was a relieved man! Still, we always knew those ‘cockroaches’ would be tough to unseat. In the circumstances, it is in neither your interest nor his to continue a formal coalition. Our backbenches would never wear it, any more than would his annoyingly democratic party (why do they allow their members such a say over their policy and direction? Our way is so much simpler).
However, your majority is too tight to ignore them completely. We will almost certainly need their votes, and soon, if you are to avoid being held to ransom by professional malcontents like Chope, Nuttall, Bone and Hollobone. They may sound like a firm of solidly provincial solicitors, but you and I both know the mayhem they are quite capable of wreaking. So let’s talk to the Lib Dems and see what business we might be able to do together. Frankly, though, I am not hopeful for the reasons set out below.
2. Appoint a cabinet that appeases the party’s right-wing.
This is an essential corollary of talking to the Lib Dems. We both know we’ll have a party riot on our hands if you’re trying to sweet-talk Nick Clegg while ignoring where the mainstream of the party now is: firmly on the right.
With the Coalition over, you now have a great deal more space on the ministerial payroll. I propose you promote a mix of youth and experience. Among the latter, bring back Liam Fox (yes, I know: but he’ll be less trouble inside the tent), hold on to Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson, and resurrect Peter Lilley and John Redwood. Of the new guys, look to the Free Enterprise Group: Dominic Raab, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel (shame about Aiden Burley) – at least you know they’re signed up to working all hours of the day.
I know you’d prefer to surround yourself with pragmatists, MPs who’ll put ‘getting things done’ ahead of ideological zealotry. But I’m afraid those days are over. Reconcile yourself now to immoderation in all things: that’s the future (unless you can get the Lib Dems on side).
Oh, and I guess you’ll need to give Boris something to do now he’s back and you’re still leader. I think making him Minister for the Regions should guarantee you’ll have to sack him sooner rather than later.
3. Tell the voters that this time they’re getting a full-on Tory Government.
It’s important to prepare the public for what’s to come. After five years of Coalition Government, most of them have got used to your emollient management of the country. They see you as on the centre-right, but not excessively so. Until now, you’ve been able to blame the Lib Dems for not being able to go as far as your party would like you to do. No-one really believed this – everyone knew it was a convenient cover-story for your own patrician preference for cautious conservatism – but people understood the political need to keep your own party’s right-wing on side.
You once joked about your “fairly thick black book” of policies those pesky Lib Dems were blocking. There is no alternative now but to unleash them. Even if you don’t, your backbenchers will. There will be a flood of private members’ bills on every right-wing touchpoint issue imaginable – immigration, Europe, human rights, the BBC – and you’ll be forced to U-turn (just as we had to on immigration, as you may recall). Not even the Lib Dems will be able to save you this time, I suspect. You must ride the right-wing tiger and hope.
I hope those three immediate priorities are of some help to you, Prime Minister.
There was one other issue you asked me to offer counsel on: Europe. Specifically you asked me two things. First, how can you negotiate sufficient EU reforms with our European partners that will satisfy the demands of our party in time for a 2017 in/out referendum? Secondly, how can you then lead a ‘Yes’ campaign to keep the UK in Europe without splitting our party?
The only honest answer I can give you to both these questions – and believe me I have racked my brains to find any answers – is that I have absolutely no idea. From close observation of our party, it is crystal clear to me that: (1) there are no EU concessions that will be enough for some of our colleagues: and (2) there is zero prospect of keeping the Conservative Party united for a ‘Yes’ campaign.
It is for this reason, Prime Minister, that I feel it only right and proper to tender my resignation as Chief Whip. I wish you luck finding a replacement better able to find a workable solution to this seemingly intractable problem.
Your former Chief Whip