Last week’s two by-elections were terrible results for the Conservatives. It’s true that if Reform UK’s vote, which attracts some hard-right Tories, had been added to their vote they would have very narrowly won in Mid-Bedfordshire.
It’s also true that in both cases the individuals who caused the elections were particularly unappetising. But these were bad losses for a party whose fifth leader in 13 years has not been able to convince voters that he has the answers they are looking for.
Rishi Sunak’s conference speech was, frankly, forgettable. Banning smoking, changing our education system to concentrate more on maths and science and cancelling HS2’s second leg to Manchester – the city that was hosting the conference – was never going to set hearts alight and predictably didn’t. The prime minister is a decent, hard-working, serious person – in marked contrast to his two immediate predecessors – but he is clearly more of a manager than a leader.
All his aspirations are sensible and worthy, but unexciting and dull. The HS2 decision is still massively contested throughout the country. Some Tory MPs whose constituencies lie on the line of the route understandably dislike the project, but all the evidence is that the country thinks the worst possible outcome for HS2 is to leave the whole project looking like a massive waste of money when it only makes sense if it goes to Manchester. After a year in office, the Labour lead over the Conservatives is as large as ever.
Since the Scottish National Party imploded after the arrest of former first minister Nicola Sturgeon, all the evidence now points inexorably to a Labour victory at the next election. It won’t be a massive majority, not least because Sir Keir Starmer is not former Labour leader Tony Blair, but it will be enough to sustain a government for the following five years. They will have a huge challenge on their hands because the country they inherit suffers not only from the impact of the pandemic but a war in Europe and now the crisis in the Middle East, which is particularly painful for a Labour Party that has many younger supporters with sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
Tackling the problems
The easy part is talking about how awful the Tory government has been. The tough part is working out how to tackle the systemic problems that recent times have vividly exposed. A health service once the envy of the world and now no longer able to cope with demand, a civil service that has become bloated and inefficient, a plethora of government agencies that often contradict each other, an apparent inability to control our own borders and a financial system that is dominated by a Treasury whose mantra is opposition to spending of any sort, good or bad.
The easy part is talking about how awful the Tory government has been
Many of these systemic issues predate this government, but it is true to say they have not been tackled. Principal among these is the need for much more housing than we currently have for our burgeoning population. Housing secretary Michael Gove appears to believe that all Tory voters are Nimbys. It is a desperately bad mistake. In truth this is one area where Labour has set out a much more realistic plan to revive housebuilding with an accent on affordability and a willingness to tackle Tory sacred cows like parts of the green belt that are anything but green.
As a lifelong Conservative voter, my sympathies are torn. I still distrust Labour on tax. The politics of envy are deeply damaging and unattractive. For all shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’ warm words, this is a party that still has more than 30 hard-left Corbynite MPs and the government’s majority will not be much greater. But, just as when 18 years of Tory government limped to its end in 1997, the inescapable conclusion now is that it really is time for a change.
Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates