As published by the Daily Mail
I write to wish you a happy New Year, and I hope that you don’t mind if I offer some unsolicited views on the year ahead.
I do so because I was struck during the Rwanda debate by the fatalistic way some of my colleagues view our prospects for the coming year.
They seem to think that electoral wipeout is already set in stone.
My experience – some 36 years in the House – suggests that they could not be more wrong.
During the Rwanda debates, some people were referring to the last time that a government lost a second reading – the Sunday Trading Bill in 1986 – despite then having a nominal majority of about 140.
Some said that it was different then, things weren’t so difficult and we were better equipped to deal with adversity. They could not be more wrong about that.
In that year, Mrs Thatcher’s ratings were in the basement, largely as a result of allowing the Americans to bomb Libya from British bases. We also had the Westland scandal, in which the attorney general was threatening to send the police into Downing Street. One Cabinet minister then had to apologise for misleading the House, while another very eminent and well-respected one, Michael Heseltine, resigned – a true political earthquake. We lost Ryedale, a rock-solid Tory seat in North Yorkshire, and Mrs Thatcher was telling a lunchtime meeting of the No Turning Back Group that she might not be Prime Minister by 6pm!
And the results of all this chaos?
Within a year, we won the next general election with a landslide majority of over 100. A key element of this was that Michael Heseltine, despite wanting to be prime minister, did not start a Tory civil war. Instead, we all played as a team – and won.
The next time we faced such grim prospects was 1992. We had trailed in the polls since 1990, when we were 28 per cent behind. We lost the Ribble Valley by-election in 1991 with a swing to the Lib Dems of 27 per cent – but even more scarily, with a turnout of over 70 per cent.
I was a whip, and as I left the office at the start of the campaign, the chief whip told me to clear my desk as we were not coming back. We went into the election with everybody expecting us to lose, including ourselves. We returned with the biggest popular vote for the Conservative Party ever, and incidentally a lot more than Tony Blair ever achieved. And of course Nigel Evans won Ribble Valley back for us, and has held it ever since.
And, as if we needed further proof of how volatile elections can be, it went the other way in 2017, when the Conservatives went from a predicted majority of well over 100 to no majority at all in a matter of days.
Many of our colleagues ask me whether we are facing 1992 or the disastrous 1997. My answer is that it depends on them. In 1992, the Conservative Party fought as a team, where the only opponent was the Opposition. In 1997, the Tories fought each other. In medieval battles there was always a time when the losing side decided to ‘sauve qui peut’, when everybody turns and runs, and the massacre begins. Political battles are no different, and the ‘sauve qui peut’ moment came a year before the 1997 election as we fought each other.
The irony is that those who broke first, attacking their own government and trying to distance themselves from the leadership, generally did worst of all. You can see this in the Hansard parliamentary reports of 1992 and 1997. Discipline wins elections, just as it wins battles.
My colleagues also seem to find it hard to imagine a scenario for victory. Well, there are many.
But let me describe one possible set of events that will create an inflection point.
Imagine that, after a short struggle, we get the Rwanda Act approved, and start sending hundreds of migrants to Rwanda. What comes next? Very likely a number of European countries will start to copy us – Denmark, Germany and the rest. All of a sudden, this goes from a problematic policy to a Europe-leading one, which as a result does have a deterrent effect in the originating countries.
After that, the next event on the political calendar will be a Budget that for a number of structural reasons will have a lot more fiscal headroom than usual, headroom that will allow us to pursue serious Conservative policies. Tax cuts, in other words.
And then there will be the London elections, notably the mayoralty. It is entirely possible that the fury over the Ulez fiasco, Left-wing, vote-splitting challenges from either Jeremy Corbyn or George Galloway, the new first-past-the-post electoral system and the lacklustre performance of Sadiq Khan, will conspire to deliver a victory to the Conservatives. Uxbridge writ large.
In a nutshell, we will have witnessed a trio of game-changing events, which will make Conservative prospects look very different.
And notice that a large part of the Labour lead rests on abstentions rather than transfers of allegiance.There is no enthusiasm for Starmer, so we just need to give the electorate a reason to support us.
Now, this sequence of events is only a set of possibilities. But we can turn them into probabilities by our own behaviour. Rwanda can be accelerated by party discipline; the Budget can be made truly Conservative by a low-tax strategy from the Treasury; and the result in London will require a professional party operation.
All of those are within our grasp, and so is another Conservative victory at the next general election.