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Artillery Row

Repent, Richard Holden

The Conservative Party needs to hold itself to account

In the words of Ronald Reagan, a man who knew a thing or two about how to bring about a conservative renaissance, there was an 11th Commandment that the good Lord omitted from the tablets of stone He had led Moses to upon Mount Sinai: “Thou shalt not criticise a fellow conservative”.

However, we are all of us fallen. I believe that there is merit in breaking the Gipper’s rule given the calamity faced last week. Too many members of the Conservative Party had, to torture my metaphor still further, begun to worship false idols, and brought ruin down on our heads. This requires more than just soul-searching. We need to be honest and ascribe blame where it is due. 

Adam Smith said that there was a great deal of ruin in a nation. This is also true of political parties, and there is no shortage of blame to go around. But whilst the erstwhile Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, took responsibility for this defeat in the speech at the count in his North Yorkshire constituency, too many others have not. The most egregious example of this is the outgoing Chairman, Richard Holden.

Though he eventually wrote to Sunak, conceding that he would step down from the chairmanship once a replacement had been confirmed (with no apology for his role in the catastrophe), there were noises that Holden was going to try to cling on. This was likened by one of his own colleagues as like Putin offering to help rebuild Ukraine. Why such vitriol? Whilst I have been shocked at the numbers of people who have come forward with tales of personal enmity against him — and partial disclosure, I have my own as well — I will keep this piece as analysis.

The problem comes from the degradation of the position of Chairman of what has been the most successful political party in the world, and the synecdoche that this provides for the rest of the Conservative Party, and perhaps, of Britain itself. 

The first chairman was the wonderfully named Sir Arthur Herbert Drummond Ramsay Steel-Maitland, appointed in the wake of the Conservatives failure to triumph in the December 1910 election. A classical scholar and President of the Oxford Union, Steel-Maitland was also an adviser to the Chancellor and a Commissioner on the Royal Commission on the poor laws. In other words, an impressive figure. Other huge figures in the history of the Party to hold the office include two who would go on to become Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain and Theresa May, and other serious figures like Rab Butler Iain Macleod, Willy Whitelaw, and Lord Carrington.

In the 1980s, Lord Thorneycroft, Norman Tebbit, and Cecil Parkinson, were political heavyweights, contributing forcefully to cabinet discussions, and dragging a reluctant party into the Thatcher revolution that so comprehensively saved the United Kingdom from socialism and utter deprivation. And in recent years, when the Party machinery suffered bodged modernisation efforts, CCHQ still enjoyed the chairmanship of energetic reformers and incredibly capable senior party figures like Brandon Lewis and James Cleverly. 

But a prolonged period in Government always risks entropic effects inside the governing party. With talent often going into the departments, and decision-making powers going into No10, we saw an atrophying of too many functions of CCHQ. 

To counter this, my old boss, Nadhim Zahawi, himself made Chairman at the start of Sunak’s premiership, empowered me and my much more talented namesake, James Lawson (now Chairman of the Adam Smith Institute) to treat CCHQ like a management consultant would a struggling business. Lawson led a series of interviews with current and former staff, developed reform plans and started the painful work of having honest conversations about what did and didn’t work. 47 immediate “quick win” recommendations emerged.

Alas. A year that opened with a former Chancellor, founder of an insanely successful company, and hero of the vaccine rollout in charge of 4 Matthew Parker Street ended with a former junior minister whose primary qualification for office was that he had been on the Sunak leadership campaign. How many of those reforms were carried out?

All of them warned about how obviously disastrous a July election would be. All were ignored

Zahawi had brought back the brilliant election guru Isaac Levido, and empowered the supremely talented heads of comms and research, Alex Wild and Marcus Natale. All of them warned about how obviously disastrous a July election would be. All were ignored. 

Surely the Chairman, bloody loyal to the northeast as he claimed to be, would have followed in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessors, and told the Prime Minister that the Party was not ready for the fight? That it didn’t have enough money, wasn’t prepared, and that volunteers were not motivated enough? It seems not.

Instead, the Chairman was more focused on finding a safe port for the ensuing storm. In a slap to the face of the hundreds of excellent members who sat on the approved candidates list, Holden was pushed for one safe seat, and when the backlash against that proved deafening, was presented as a fait accompli to another. Winning his selection battle for Basildon and Billericay against a shortlist of zero competitors, a disastrous television interview saw the Chairman of the Conservative Party benched for the entirety of the General Election. He was free to focus on one of the safest seats in the country. He won by 20 votes. 

Why does this matter? Beyond the righteous fury of the members, of those thousands of parliamentary and campaign staffers left unemployed by this result, by the hundreds of excellent parliamentarians lost who could have better held the new Government to account, and by the sheer unfairness of it all, this sorry episode speaks to the rot in the Conservative Party. The unwillingness of the party so long famed for its ruthlessness to do what needs to be done, whether on personnel or policy, has cost them dear. 

It will cost the country even more dearly. Whether a chairman elected by Conservative Party members is the answer is a debate that should be had. But one thing is clear, if conservatism is to have a future in the UK, we need to abandon false idols.

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