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Artillery Row

The Conservatives deserve to be taught a lesson

Bad behaviour has to come with consequences

It would, Grant Shapps says, be bad news for British democracy if Labour won too large a majority next month. For a moment I wondered whether his words reflected a realisation that his own party had only been able to manage stable government this century when it was in coalition with someone else, but I don’t think this was his point. 

It’s true that governments with small majorities are more constrained, but this isn’t obviously a good thing. Our years of Brexit deadlock were only broken once the government had a comfortable majority. And if you believe, as some on the right claim they do, that Britain needs planning reform and plenty of housebuilding, then a Labour government with a large majority is the likeliest route to those things. Certainly the Conservatives haven’t been able to deliver them with theirs.

But let me offer a different counterargument: it would be very good for our democracy for the Conservative Party to suffer a crushing defeat. The Conservatives have behaved terribly in government, and politicians, like children, need to know that their actions have consequences.

In 2019, British voters were faced with an unusual and appalling situation: a choice between two men both utterly unfit to be prime minister. Leaving aside Jeremy Corbyn’s political abilities — he could never persuade even Labour MPs that he ought to head a government — and his instincts — he would go on to suggest the British government had provoked Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — he had neither the temperament nor the intellect for the top job. So voters opted for what they perceived to be the lesser of two evils.

The result was that Labour paid a price for offering an unfit leader, and the Conservatives were rewarded. And that has been a bad thing. It told Tories that integrity in public life was optional. Boris Johnson, of course, needed no encouragement on that score, but his weak-minded followers, in Parliament, on his staff, and in the media, thought they had won a free pass. “Voters don’t care,” we were assured, after each fresh scandal broke. Until it turned out that they did. 

For all their later cries of anguish as Boris Johnson’s character was laid bare on the public stage, Conservatives knew exactly who he was when they made him prime minister. If the precise details of his downfall were pleasingly novel — who had “locks up the nation while hosting a series of wild parties” on their bingo card? — it was no surprise that he thought rules were for other people and lied as was convenient. This had been his entire career. I hope my colleague Paul Goodman will forgive me reminding him of what was surely the greatest ever ConservativeHome editorial, which suggested that Johnson should be prime minister, but with rival Jeremy Hunt as a deputy, to handle the tedious business of running the country. Has any endorsement ever been less enthusiastic?

Conservative MPs knew who Johnson was during the 2019 election campaign, when he insisted his Brexit proposals wouldn’t create a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. Did any Tory correct the prime minister as he misled voters about a key feature of the deal that was the centrepiece of his election campaign? Of course not. Voters don’t care!

And that’s just Johnson. Is there any Conservative out there who wants to argue that, since their party took sole charge of the country in 2015, they have been a good government? Four years spent arguing about Brexit followed by 18 months of a lockdown policy that was conspicuously more interested in pubs than schools, and then three years of infighting. There are bright spots — the vaccine and the leadership on Ukraine — but the main theme has been chaos. We have had as many chancellors of the exchequer in the last nine years as we did in the preceding 30. 

And what is there to show for it? The party’s central economic policy has been to make it harder for British businesses to sell things to France. And, in fairness, it has achieved that — even if, for some reason, Conservatives are now reluctant to talk about it. Take that away, and you’re left with what? High taxes and a crumbling public realm. For months now, the most damning criticism of the state of the country at Prime Minister’s Questions has come from the Tory benches, as MPs complain that their constituents can’t see dentists or doctors. Not even Conservative MPs think that life is good under the Conservatives.

So I’m happy for the party to be crushed. I don’t go quite as far as the 46 per cent of the public who say Conservatives deserve to lose every seat, but I could live with that result far more easily than the party holding 250 seats. 

I want the Conservative Party from 2015 to 2024 to be a cautionary tale that politics professors whisper to terrify their students. Because if you can govern this badly, behave this badly, without any consequences, that would bode very ill indeed for our democracy.

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