Conservatives must never be complacent about Starmer

Robert Halfon

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Is Keir Starmer doing that badly? I don’t want to rain on the parade of opinion poll Tory leads of anything from four to 13 per cent. Of course, it is far better to be in this position than trailing behind and our standing will be especially important in the run-up to local elections.

However, it is worth noting that Labour is still 24 points above its position after the 2019 General Election. It is also hard enough for any opposition party to get a look in, let alone in a national pandemic.

I remember well the Cameron opposition years, particularly when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair in 2007.

At the time, especially over the summer months, Labour rocketed ahead in public opinion. It looked like Labour’s fourth consecutive election victory was in the offing. Yet, by October of that year, thanks to an astonishing performance by George Osborne on slashing inheritance tax, David Cameron’s Conference speech, Brown’s poorly timed trip to see troops in Iraq and his botched scrapping of an early election, Conservatives level pegged and even leapfrogged Labour in the opinion polls.

I won’t ever forget going to the 2007 Conservative Party Conference as Harlow’s parliamentary candidate (by then, standing for a third time), thinking that it was all over – and I would not be elected to Westminster. A few days later, all had changed, and Brown put off the election until 2010. The rest is history. It was for me.

I was driving around one of Harlow’s many roundabouts when I first heard that Brown had cancelled the election. It was announced on the post-conference Saturday lunchtime news on Radio 4. I literally stopped my car, as I was utterly amazed. I thought to myself, “Well Rob, you might get elected after all”.

I mention these things – not to be, as the Prime Minister might say, a “gloomster” – but only to remind fellow Conservatives that politics changes, literally, overnight.

Yes, the Labour Leader is often “Captain Hindsight” and he doesn’t always see the wood from the trees because of his love for forensics. But, it is not easy for opposition leaders to cut through. To his credit, Starmer is reforming the Labour Party by stealth, slowly weeding out the far-left and trying to rid his party of antisemitism.

Of course, the crucial test will come in policy, and whether the Labour Party will be counter-intuitive on public spending. Of that, there is little sign. It appears that there is no lobby group or vested interest they will not try and court in order to score the political equivalent of a quick clickbait “high” in the media and the internet. At some point, Her Majesty’s Opposition will have to take tough decisions if they want to be respected by the public and be a party of Government.

Nevertheless, Conservatives must never be complacent. The public mood can change pretty quickly. Labour party grassroots and council strength remains high. They have a long time to reform themselves and undo the damage of the Corbyn years.

Explaining public spending decisions

It is not always easy to set out the tough decisions on public spending to constituents, especially when they regard emotive issues seen to address social injustice. But, once we have worked out what our political spending priorities are, this is something all Conservatives are going to have to do.

Due to the pandemic, Government finances and our general economic situation are pretty bleak. The Government is spending more than £400 billion just to keep people and businesses afloat. Our country faces a debt bill of over £2 trillion pounds. Laid out in cash, this is enough money to fill Wembley Stadium. The interest on the debt currently sits at £49 billion pounds a year (money which could otherwise be spent on public services or cutting the cost of living – like taxes – for small business and lower earners).

The hard truth of it is that every decision the Government takes on spending increases, whether it is wages or other spending (e.g. on welfare or public services), means that either we will either have to raise taxes – quite possibly income tax – or borrow more. If we keep borrowing, we will simply have more debt and interest to pay. Borrowing will also mean that we will not have any funds available if there is a further economic shock (as we saw in 2008), or even another pandemic.

The Government does not take these decisions to be unpopular and it may sometimes get things wrong. But choices are being made under the difficult economic and financial circumstances our country currently finds itself in.

The other issue is that millions of workers have lost their jobs or their incomes. The Government has to make certain that spending decisions do not increase the burden for workers through higher taxes. Whichever way we look, there are no simple answers.

It is easy for the political opposition parties to campaign for more funding and win themselves short-term popularity because they do not share any of the responsibility for the difficult spending decisions that the Government has to make.

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This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com.

Let’s be optimistic

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

I’m not an overly religious person, however I respect our Christian heritage and identity. While we pause to think about the 250 people killed and hundreds more wounded by suicide bombers in Sri Lanka last Easter, this weekend is generally considered a happy time for Christians – as they believe that Jesus rose from the dead and that his resurrection symbolises that death is not the end. On this Maundy Thursday / National Winston Churchill Day / my birthday – during what is an unusual period in our nation’s history – I urge everyone reading this blog, whether you’re a believer or not, to reflect on this holy message of hope and to inject a bit of optimism into your outlook. As I’ve written countless times before: although optimism isn’t everything – it can make one hell of a difference.

Last summer – or BC (before Coronavirus), more than half of all Tory MPs and two-thirds of Conservative Party members voted for Boris Johnson during the leadership contest. In December, the electorate voted in one Conservative MP for each day of the calendar year. People roundly rejected ‘Project Fear’ and bought into Mr Johnson’s optimistic vision – to ‘get Brexit done’ and focus on the people’s priorities. He’s already delivered on the former and is working on the rest, such as controlling immigration, which is why – four months on – polling finds ratings that have not been seen for a British prime minister since the early days of Blair’s premiership.

Now that he is feeling under the weather – but improving, I reckon we owe it to ourselves to reject ‘Virus Fear’ and to cheer him on. While everyone can do their bit, some have additional responsibilities.

In my opinion, publishers, editors and journalists have a responsibility to educate and entertain. Now, every time someone tunes into the news, logs onto Twitter or picks up a newspaper, all they see is ongoing news about the number of deaths as well as who and how many people have been tested, and whether the heir to the throne is a priority (the answer is: yes); comparisons with other countries; talk about designated survivors; lessons about the UK constitution or lack thereof; speculation about caretaker leaders; and yes, plenty of codswallop from Piers Morgan. I understand that news channels have airtime and newspapers have column inches to fill but there must be a limit.

Further, for many people (politicians, their aides and PRs included), working from home during the lockdown presents an opportunity to spend more time talking to loved ones, friends and family, albeit by Zoom, Houseparty or whatever is the tool the whiz-kids have concocted. I say: embrace it!

Go for a walk and discover something new about your local area. Plan that big vacation to Greece and get into shape for it. I, for one, long for downing a pint of pale ale outside a traditional pub on a hot August day and sipping white wine by the swimming pool in Tuscany. Follow what’s going on with other populist campaigns around the globe, including President Trump vs the former VP Joe Biden – now that Bernie Sanders has finally dropped out – as well as growing support for both Matteo Salvini and the Brothers of Italy as more and more Italians become disillusioned with the EU’s response to managing Covid-19.

And finally, (start or) keep reading. For books, try ‘The Churchill Factor’ by you know who or ‘The Gatekeeper’ by Baroness Fall. For newspapers, it must be The Daily Telegraph and The Yorkshire Post (by the way, do continue to buy them and support the industry). For magazines, try The Spectator and British GQ. And online, try alternative media such as Spiked and Politicalite. Before you know it, we will be back to normal and you’ll be complaining about not making the most of this time and weather.

Every death is tragic, and everything must be done to prevent more, flatten the curve and move forward. It’s why everyone must adhere to the government’s advice: to ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives’, because, together, we can get through this – and, this summer, we’ll raise a glass to those loved ones we lost before their time and say Cheers! to our future.

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by The Commentator (‘Let’s be optimistic!’ – April 8, 2020) and Politicalite (‘Despite Coronavirus, let’s be optimistic this Easter’ – April 9, 2020).

BoJo will give Britain back its mojo

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

After celebrating last week’s success, I’ve started to think about what we can expect to see in the new year.

On Thursday, the people spoke loud and clear. They chose to place their trust in the Prime Minister, the Conservative & Unionist Party and its parliamentary spokespeople throughout the UK – to deliver Brexit and move forward, so that we can focus on other priorities. In short, a sense of pride and identity was restored.

Boris Johnson’s government, or ‘The People’s Government’ as he now labels it, won exactly 365 seats – an MP for every day of the year and a stonking majority of 80 at that – making this the best result for the centre-right party in over thirty years. In fact, the gain of 47 is the highest of any Tory administration ever, including Margaret Thatcher’s win in 1983. Since 2010, the Conservatives have increased their share of the popular vote from 36% to 44%. They have a legitimate mandate to govern and, thankfully, the ability to break the log-jam in Parliament.

Personally, I’m encouraged to see so much talent – many of them Conservatives in Communications in former lives – take their seats on the green benches: Alex Stafford (Rother Valley), Nickie Aiken (Cities of London & Westminster), Paul Bristow (Peterborough), Paul Holmes (Eastleigh), Richard Holden (North West Durham) and Theo Clarke (Stafford). I hope, and expect, to see more talent re-/join in the future, specifically in Scotland and the capital.

Put it another way, the electorate let the loony left – led by the Hamas and Hezbollah supporting socialist Jeremy Corbyn – know exactly what they thought of their policies. Momentum’s most stunning achievement? Getting Northern ex-miners to trudge through winter rain to vote Conservative. Working class Britons have firmly taken back control; Blue Collar Conservatism is steaming ahead. 

The Tories ran a disciplined campaign. As expected, polling analysis, social media and audiovisuals took centre stage again. Credit to the folks at Hanbury Strategy, Topham Guerin and Westminster Digital for playing their part. In terms of messaging, ‘Long Term Economic Plan’ was replaced with ‘Get Brexit Done’. But unlike in 2017, when Theresa May misread the mood, Mr Johnson stood outside Number 10 and urged the 100% – Leavers and Remainers alike – “to find closure and let the healing begin”. Congratulations to the national campaign team, including Isaac Levido, Lee Cain and Rob Oxley. 

On Saturday, the Prime Minister travelled to Tony Blair’s former constituency, Sedgefield, and gleefully declared “We’re going to recover our national self-confidence, our mojo, our self-belief, and we’re going to do things differently and better as a country”. On Sunday, Lord Heseltine admitted he and others – including People’s Vote campaigners – had lost and dismissed the prospect of them fighting on. 

And how did Corbyn and his allies react to all of this? Faiza Shaheen, who stood against Iain Duncan Smith, looked distraught at the count in Chingford and Wood Green. Owen Jones and Ash Sarkar (commentators and activists), who dominated Labour’s narrative, had a meltdown on TV – again! Lily Allen even deleted her account on Twitter. Many of them joined the violent and extremist, some say terrorist, group, Antifa, in protesting outside Downing Street – like they did outside Buckingham Palace during President Trump’s most recent visit – before revealing their support for Angela Rayner, Dawn Butler, Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry, Keir Starmer and Richard Burgon as potential future leaders.

Meanwhile, its current leader – who refuses to go or take responsibility for the outcome – wrote a rather misguided piece for The Observer: ‘We won the argument, but I regret we didn’t convert that into a majority for change.’ Let me be clear. 1. No you didn’t. 2. You don’t say. Caroline Flint, had she not lost her seat, Lisa Nandy or Yvette Cooper would be more effective at the helm. However, if I had to place a bet on it right now, I reckon members will back Rebecca Wrong-Daily. Sorry, Rebecca Long-Bailey.

Regarding press, I want to revisit a theme that I’ve previously highlighted. That, people are quickly losing faith in the mainstream media. Is it any wonder when the BBC mismanaged the TV leadership debates, Channel 4 showed its bias and Sky chose to pay John Bercow £60,000 to be its guest despite only mustering an audience of 45,700? Yes, it was somewhat amusing to watch him squirm as the results were announced but get a grip! Expect the new Culture Secretary to make the BBC licence fee a top issue. If Channel 4 doesn’t return to the old days and if Sky fails to see the error of its ways, then also expect the electorate to turn towards alternative media.  

A while back I argued that we need to redefine our purpose, move forward with our global partners, unite the UK – and defeat Corbynism. I believe we have achieved that. World and party leaders, including Scott Morrison and Matteo Salvini, were queueing round the block to congratulate Mr Johnson on his achievement.

This week, he should focus on delivering the Queen’s Speech and bringing back the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB). Get that out of the way and deliver the January 31 promise. After Christmas, he can concentrate on lowering taxes and investing in public services while at the same time launching debates about controlling immigration and more besides.

Before the campaign got underway, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan tweeted: “The Tories thought calling a winter election would stop us campaigning. They were wrong.” I responded: “No, they thought the people deserved a Parliament that would represent them. Londoners deserve a mayor who will champion them. Next year, they get their say.” 2020 is going to be a year like no other. Fasten your seatbelts, folks – you’re in for a wild ride.

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (‘BoJo will give Britain back its mojo’ – December 16, 2019).