Conservative leadership contests and the art of lying
“We all know what we have to do”, said Jean-Claude Juncker, “we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.” Conservative leadership candidates must empathise with the former EU president.
It’s hard to recall a less propitious time for anyone to take over as Prime Minister. The country is divided by Brexit, broke after Covid-19, the economy is stalling, incomes in real terms are crashing and inflation is galloping. Meanwhile the incoming Prime Minister will take over a party in which all discipline has broken down, where the norms of Cabinet responsibility and ministerial ethics lie in tatters, with a predecessor who remains unaccountably popular with much of the grassroots and the media and where any attempt to blame current problems on the opposition are likely to be met with derision. The Conservatives are also facing double digit deficits behind Labour in many polls.
Still, you don’t want to become Prime Minister unless you believe you can defy the odds and many of the candidates may be reasoning that they will benefit from low expectations. Given the last week, if the new Prime Minister does not bare their backside or face tax evasion charges, that might be seen as a sensational improvement (I’m not guaranteeing that all candidates can meet that test, by the way).
Any would-be Prime Minister is going to need to pass a three stage test. First, they’re going to need to persuade enough of their fellow MPs to put them in the last two. Then they’re going to need to persuade a majority of the Conservative party’s members to prefer them. Finally, they’re going to need to persuade enough of the public to support them at the next election.
And there is M. Juncker’s problem. It’s not too hard to deduce what to say to MPs and then to party members to get elected. But getting re-elected after saying it will be a much more formidable challenge. The concerns of MPs and party members are far removed from those of the general public, and right now they are often directly opposed.
Fortunately for Conservative hopefuls, Jean-Claude Juncker did not just identify the problem, he gave the solution too: “When it becomes serious, you have to lie.” Boris Johnson followed this advice for years and by and large it served him well. The critical question, however, is deciding who you are going to lie to.
This should be approached on a case-by-case basis rather than always lie to the same group. You don’t want any group to get too alienated, nor do you want any group to feel too confident they can rely on you. Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen.
All leadership contenders are going to need to deal with five topics: personal integrity; tax and spend policies; Brexit; immigration; and wokeness. Let’s look at the correct lies on each of these in turn.
The old joke goes that Calvin Coolidge was once asked what the Sunday preacher had based his sermon upon. “Sin”, he replied. “And what did he say?”, he was asked. The president replied: “He was against it”.
Boris Johnson would not have cared for a sermon so lacking in nuance. The public grew heartily sick of this and word clouds for him usually have “liar” as the stand-out word. This means that candidates are going to need to have unusual amounts to say about their own virtue for both party and public.
This is a problem for some candidates, some of whom have stones in their histories that they would prefer not to have lifted up. My best advice to such candidates would be to lean into their histories. If the problematic behaviour can be presented as “getting things done”, then present yourself as a doer. If the compromising pictures involving a long-haired goat and a spatula are about to come out, present yourself as someone who has learned the hard way.
The dirt needs to be dished on rival candidates, but by and large you should stand aloof from that. Others can be relied upon to do that for you.
Tax and spend policies
Conservatives will need to choose between cutting taxes (and reducing National Insurance is a better bet than cutting corporation tax because those who pay National Insurance vote) and investing in the public sector. It would, of course, be extremely gauche to make that choice before being elected. Rishi Sunak has no option, having already set policy in this area, but there’s no need for anyone else to make this mistake. You score bonus marks if, after calling for both tax cuts and increased investment, you stress the need for sound money policies.
The successful candidate once elected will then need to decide who to let down. The public by and large want investment in public services while fellow MPs and Conservative party members want tax cuts.
The solution is simple: implement the tax cuts, which are immediately visible, and defer or cancel the public sector investment, which will go unnoticed for some time. This worked very well for Boris Johnson, who would cheerfully talk about 40 new hospitals as if they existed. Announcements are very cheap. Don’t incur greater expense unnecessarily.
Brexit and Northern Ireland
Brexit is pretty obviously becoming a dead end. The public has formed a consensus that it is going badly and an absolute majority now think that it was the wrong decision. Only the deranged and the obsessive now cling to the idea. Unfortunately, that includes a substantial number of Conservative MPs and the majority of Conservative party members. Any successful candidate is going to have to make the wrong noises and make them with gusto. This applies with especial force for those candidates who voted Remain in 2016. Even then they are likely to be regarded with suspicion. Rishi Sunak, who publicly supported Leave before the referendum, has faced some muttering about being insufficiently Brexity from the hardest liners. This is not the time to give any hint of recognising the realities of the position.
The live subject, which cannot be ducked, is what to say and do about the Northern Ireland Protocol. “Borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians”, Jean-Claude Juncker said, and it’s taken Brexit to make British politicians realise his wisdom on the point. Candidates should address this question with some finesse. On the one hand, it’s important to sound as if you would like to rip out the throat of any passing Eurocrat who dared to suggest that its terms be honoured. On the other hand, the Northern Ireland marching season is upon us and it’s probably not a good for your campaign to be seen as a catalyst for disorder, so pick your words carefully. Something like “it’s important that Britain firmly asserts its position in order to work with the EU to make the TCA work to everyone’s complete satisfaction, which is completely achievable if the EU can only be persuaded to bend their stiff necks.” You get the idea. Now is not the time to suggest that Britain also might compromise. There are no votes with the party membership there.
After you’ve been elected, of course, you’re going to need to find some way of getting out of the dead end and starting the process of engaging with the majority of the population that think your party has gone batshit mental on the subject. That’s not going to be easy but I suggest you try to make it look as if you’re driving forward rather than reversing. Anyway, you’re the one trying to be Prime Minister. You’ve got to do some of the work here.
The public, party members and MPs are all — unusually — in the same place on immigration: hopelessly confused. On the one hand, they don’t much like it. On the other, they rather like the work that immigrants do. Back on the first hand, they don’t like the inability to control borders vividly illustrated by the Channel crossing migrants. On the other hand, there is sympathy for asylum seekers from places like Ukraine. And the one thing the public really don’t like is ineptness.
You’re not going to change public attitudes in a leadership campaign, so don’t try. By all means advocate for a rational immigration and asylum policy. On no account try to give any details or you’ll just lose votes.
There is actually a partial solution here, which is to invest seriously in the immigration appeals system so that claims are heard and disposed of far more quickly. A bold candidate might advocate spending money in this area, but that would risk pulling at a thread. Spending money on bureaucracy is not likely to find favour with the audience you are immediately concerned with, even if it is a very good idea. That should wait until you are safely in Number 10.
This is a bit of a trap. The newspapers love exposing wokeness in all its forms. Conservative MPs and party members are similarly unimpressed with wokeness. But while saying the right things might improve the mood music with your immediate electorates, trans rights and contentious street names are peripheral concerns for most even in these groups. If you major on them, you will look peripheral too. Go woke, go broke.
Once elected, it’s probably a good idea to let some of your enthusiastic colleagues continue to pander to the papers and the party faithful. But in this not too much zeal. The general public in the UK is not like that in the USA and has nuanced views on subjects like trans rights and black lives matter. Try to sound as if you do too.
Having cleared all those fences, you still need a positive pitch. As Jeremy Corbyn knew, *strong message here* is required.
No, I’m not going to help you on this. You’re the one who wants to be Prime Minister. If you want to be Prime Minister, you should know what you want to do as Prime Minister. If you don’t know what you want to do, you shouldn’t be. We’ve just despatched one Prime Minister who saw being the role as the point. We don’t need to copy that mistake again.