I must begin this blog with my customary apology for the length of time it has taken to write it. A number of people have complained that I have not yet written up the Full Council meeting of 7th July, well over a week ago, including no less a figure than Cllr David Harrison (WI, Wickford Park), the Mayor of Basildon. I did not realise that I had such an august readership (he has clearly forgiven, or did not notice the ‘Mayor Muttley’ crack from a previous blog). Anyway, the write-up of Full Council is going to have to wait and give way to national politics. What a week in politics this has been!
Personally, I have never known a more fast-moving and unpredictable period in British politics and, I have to confess, for a political anorak like myself, it is hugely exciting. It all seemed to start with the EU referendum result. I already outlined my own position on the EU and I why I felt we should leave but, if I am being completely honest, I thought it likely that ‘Remain’ would win a narrow victory over ‘Leave’. That certainly seemed to be the perceived wisdom and the consensus of the polls. But, not for the first time, my perception and the pollsters’ consensus proved to be wholly wrong.
As I said on my Facebook page the morning the result was announced, I felt like I had “awoken to a brave new world”. I was, and remain, incredibly proud of the British people for standing up to the scare stories, threats and intimidation, and choosing instead to believe in themselves and vote for freedom and democracy. It was a great day for this country. But, while the doomsayers of the Remain camp were, I believe, hysterically exaggerating the risks of leaving the EU (not to mention downplaying or totally ignoring the very real risks of staying in such a fundamentally doomed organisation), they were not entirely wrong and, naturally, leaving the EU does present the UK with as many challenges as it does opportunities. The burden of negotiating the risks and capitalising on the rewards falls to the Conservative Party – as the current part of government – and, boy, is it an exciting time to be a Tory!
One almost immediate consequence of Brexit was the resignation of the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. As I said on Facebook, I was never a diehard ‘Cameroon’ and I was less than enamoured by his conduct of the referendum campaign but I thought he handled his resignation with tremendous dignity. I think he could have stayed on, had he really wanted to. I knew a number of people on the Leave side, even some really hardline ‘Brexiters’, who would have been satisfied to let Mr Cameron implement the result. I even spoke to two Tory MPs, both fanatical Brexiteers and neither of them Cameroon loyalists, who were satisfied Mr Cameron was an honourable man who would honour the result either way. I largely agreed, I have to say, but I can see why, ultimately, he felt his position was untenable.
This then triggered the first Tory Party leadership election in over a decade, about which I have already blogged and explained the reason why I decided to back the leadership bid of Andrea Leadom, the MP for South Northamptonshire. As I said very candidly in my blog, I was firmly in the #AnyoneButMay camp, primarily because I felt the new PM ought to be a Brexiter and because I have not be an undiluted fan of Mrs May’s long tenure at the Home Office. Nevertheless, what was hard to ignore was Mrs May’s clear and overwhelming support from the vast majority of MPs. She enjoyed the firm backing of a whopping 60% of the Parliamentary Conservative Party and, in the end, Mrs Leadsom decided that, under the circumstances, it made no sense to subject the country to a nine-week leadership race and she very valiantly withdrew from the leadership election. It was the right choice and enabled the Conservative Party to appoint a new leader immediately. This was clearly in the national interest and was very much to Mrs Leadsom’s credit. Mrs May was duly named as the new Leader of the Conservative & Unionist Party in short order.
From this point, things moved very quickly. Mr Cameron held his last Cabinet meeting on Wednesday 13th July, followed by an unusually playful final session of PMQs in the House of Commons, during which Mr Cameron was in stunning form and reminded us all of what a great Commons performer we are losing (most notable was his delicious exchange with Ken Clarke and, of course, his final valedictory address), and then he and his wife, Samantha, and their three children, Nancy, Elwen and Florence, made an emotional farewell from outside Downing Street before driving to Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen, during which Mr Cameron formally resigned as Her Majesty’s Prime Minister. It is worth pointing out that there was, at this point, a brief window during which there was no Prime Minister and Her Majesty was nominally in charge. Despite the enormous attractiveness of the idea of leaving things that way, I am pleased that Mrs May eventually made her own way to Buckingham Palace, where the Queen asked her to form a new administration. With that, Theresa May returned to Downing Street as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service, the thirteenth Prime Minister of Her Majesty’s reign, the ninth Conservative, and the second woman.
I do think that the Conservative Party, in stark contrast to the bloodletting of the Blair-Brown years, deserve considerable credit for a smooth transition of power and also for delivering the second female PM in our history. It is worth noting that the Tories have done this without need of quotas, all-women shortlists, or patronising pink buses. Meanwhile, those useless Trots in the Labour Party are no nearer to electing a leader who is not a white, middle-aged man than they ever have been. So bully for us! Mrs May made her first speech as Prime Minister outside Number 10, flanked by her husband Philip. It was a bravura performance, in which she reiterated the Tories’ sound economic management, our steadfast belief in the Union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but most importantly, she made a strident reaffirmation of the One Nation commitment to social justice. Crucially, she also made it abundantly clear ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and I was greatly hearted by her statement “I know because we’re Great Britain that we will rise to the challenge. As we leave the European Union, we will forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world”. I emerge from this whole process hugely confident that we have selected a strong and capable leader to take our country forward and I am tremendously proud to be a Conservative.
Mrs May is, as I type this, putting the finishing touches to her Cabinet reshuffle, which has been so comprehensive and fascinating that I think I shall write a separate blog just on that but I would like to end this blog with a few words of reflection about the outgoing Prime Minister. As I said earlier in this blog, I am not a natural Cameroon. Anyone who knows me knowns that I am far from a ‘Tory moderniser’ and my politics lie somewhat to the right of Mr Cameron’s. “DC”, as he tends to be known within the Tory Party, had been Prime Minister for the last six years and Leader of the Conservative Party for eleven. I did not vote for him in the 2005 leadership election (I supported David Davis) but I long recognised that he was, in retrospect, the right man for the time. I can still remember saying to someone, all those years ago, that David Cameron – who was merely Shadow Education Secretary under Michael Howard (now Lord Howard of Lympne) at the time and had not even formally thrown his hat into the ring for the leadership – would be the most important political figure in British politics for the next decade. He scoffed at me and said that Cameron was just another flashy PR man. Like I say, I ultimately ended up voting for the other guy but I could tell even then that this man was destined for greatness. He had already made a name for himself under Lord Howard and I suspected he would be a senior figure under Mr Davis. In the end, my interlocutor was quite wrong and even I had underestimate the meteoric speed with which DC would make an impact.
Although I did not vote for him and I have not always shared his politics or agreed with his policies, DC did succeed in making the Tory Party electable again. It is impossible to understate what a stupendous feat that was. I remember it well. The Tory Party in 2005 was in a pretty parlous state. We had ceased to be the natural party of government, having lost three elections in a row, and our treasured reputation as the custodians of economic probity was still in tatters following the European Exchange Rate Mechanism débâbcle of 1992. I remember it particularly because I joined the Party while at university and, by 2005, our support was confined to the blue rinse brigade and a few eccentric diehards like me. The Tories were the third party among students, behind the Lib Dems, and seen by many – in Theresa May’s words – as “the nasty party”.
He failed to win an overall majority at the General Election of 2010 but when that election produced a hung parliament, he formed the first peacetime coalition government since the 1930s. One of his first successes, in my opinion, was his style of leadership and his approach to government, which differed so significantly from the spin and obsessive control-freakery of the Blair-Brown years. He picked a talented team (including, in fairness, a number of very capable Liberal Democrat ministers) and, by and large, allowed them to get on with it. Michael Gove was able to surge ahead with education reform, massively increasing academies and introducing free schools (150 by 2015), without Downing Street trying to pull the strings. Likewise, Iain Duncan Smith was able to pursue welfare reform, which have reduced the proportion of workless households to the lowest levels in nearly twenty years. But it would be quite wrong to dismiss Mr Cameron’s famously ‘chillaxed’ style to disinterest, laziness, or weakness. Good leadership is the art of wise delegation and, in this, DC showed remarkable deftness. Secondly, I think his greatest legacy will be the jobs miracle this country has seen over the last six years. Despite the dire predictions of the neo-Keynesians, he obstinately pushed ahead with the axing of over 400,000 public sector jobs and, sure enough, six private sector jobs have been created for every public sector job he cut. Wisely, he deregulated business when other European countries were increasing the regulatory burden on their businesses. He cut spurious employment tribunals, cut National Insurance bills for small businesses, cut Corporation Tax, and created incentives for companies to hire staff. As a consequence, he helped create 31.6 million new jobs! More than at any other point in British history. Mr Cameron is leaving office with the employment rate at the highest it has ever been (74%). Not to mention the fact that he took a country from economic crisis to fastest growth rate among the G8. Income inequality has also been cut during DC’s time in office thanks to the tax cuts he focused on the low-paid and because of the welfare reforms that have encouraged people to escape poverty through honest work.
In some respects, it is these very achievements that have made David Cameron the victim of his own success. The UK’s prosperity became a magnet for the world’s mobile workers, creating the immigration problem that, arguably, created the conditions for Brexit – the momentous vote that has ultimately proved to be his undoing. But we must be thankful to DC for that as well. For, even though he ended up backing the wrong side, David Cameron promised a referendum on Europe and he delivered one. All those of us who have campaigned all our adult lives for the UK to leave the EU and have now seen that dream become a reality cannot escape the fact that it happened because David Cameron delivered the referendum. For that, I shall always be tremendously grateful to him. I only wish he had picked the right side, for I do believe that he is instinctively Eurosceptic. Regardless, he was an exemplary leader of our Party and a fantastic Prime Minister of our country. He achieved much during his time in office, for too much for me to mention it all here, but they are things for which all Tories may be justly proud and he deserves our respect and gratitude.