Conservative hopes for a narrow electoral loss are delusional
According to Katy Balls in The Spectator, Tory MPs are debating whether the outcome of the next election will look more like 1992 (when the Conservatives clung on to power against all odds) or 1997 (when they suffered a landslide defeat).
However, she also reports on a third — and supposedly more likely — scenario: “graceful defeat”. The thinking is that a “soft landing” into opposition would be preferable to limping on in government with a wafer-thin majority.
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If this really is what Tory MPs think, then they’re delusional. For a start, debating which electoral outcome would suit them best overlooks the fact that they don’t get to choose. It will be the voters who decide what happens to the Tories — and, right now, the options are somewhere in the range from catastrophic to apocalyptic.
The first thing that the new Conservative Party chairman should do is watch the 1998 film, Deep Impact. Appropriately enough, it’s a disaster story — in which astronomers discover an asteroid heading directly for Earth. Preparing for the worst, the US government excavates an underground complex with enough room for one million citizens. Places are reserved for those judged most essential to the rebuilding of civilisation.
The Conservative Party needs an equally unsentimental survival strategy. In this case, the fast approaching asteroid is the next election. If the result is as bad as 1997 then the party could loose 200 seats — and that’s if they’re lucky. The Tories therefore need a plan that prioritises their best people, i.e. those most capable of mounting an effective opposition to a Labour government with a crushing majority.
In 1997, six cabinet ministers lost their seats — including Michael Portillo, who should have become the new leader. Instead the job fell to 36-year-old William Hague, who was clearly too inexperienced at the time. Further, he had to fill the Tory front benches from a shallow talent pool of just 165 MPs. Some of these considered themselves too grand for opposition; others were just too mad or bad to be trusted with a shadow ministerial role.
This can’t be allowed to happen again. For a start, to prevent any Portillo-style decapitations, no seat should be assumed to be safe. Equally, the party must be realistic about seats with slimmer majorities. Without a dramatic turnaround in the polls, the likelihood is that these are already lost. If the sitting MP is a designated survivor then he or she needs to find a new constituency.
Such a manoeuvre is known as a ‘chicken run’ — but the Tories should overcome any embarrassment. For instance, if they want Boris Johnson boosting morale in the dark days to come, then he must leave behind his current constituency (majority: 7,210) for somewhere more defensible. The same goes for their brightest hopes for the future, like Miriam Cates.
There is no time to lose. Party managers should be persuading the Bufton Tuftons of the parliamentary party to retire from their safe seats — and create as many refuges as possible for the Conservatives’ big beasts and rising stars.
Above all, Tories must realise that opposition won’t be a “soft landing” but a long hard slog. Those unwilling to give their all to this arduous task should quit now.