The House

This divided Conservati­ve Party faces a long road back to electoral credibilit­y

- Former No 10 director of politics and communicat­ions Sir Craig Oliver

In the first couple of weeks of her premiershi­p, Liz Truss thought she was about to drive an intellectu­al and ideologica­l juggernaut through the brick wall of reality. She soon discovered she was in a Mini. The Conservati­ve Party was a passenger on that fool’s errand. And yet pulling themselves battered and bruised from the steaming wreckage, there is plenty of evidence that many MPs and members have not learned lessons about what brought them to this sorry state.

Consider the latest race to be prime minister. Boris Johnson did not make the ballot, but there were still dozens of MPs willing to laud him as the ultimate campaigner, claiming only he could get the car back on the road.

Even when it became blindingly obvious that Rishi Sunak was the favourite and the party needed to show a united front, Penny Mordaunt kept going, and dozens of MPs held back from supporting Sunak in public. This was not only a denial of reality – look at the opinion polls – it was a symptom of the virus that entered the Conservati­ve Party this decade: a refusal to set aside arguments and to put the narcissism of small difference­s ahead of the common good.

When I spoke to a number of MPs, they told me they couldn’t fall in behind Sunak because in private they found him cold, arrogant and defeatist. His great sin for some appears to have been to confront MPs and party members with reality: Johnson was not fit to govern; Trussonomi­cs was a fantasy.

Great campaigner­s make the transition to governing, accepting the world as it is – in all its complex, nuanced, messy reality – and not as they wish it to be.

They realise if they are to have any hope of changing the country for the better, they need to have a realistic assessment of things and a robust but flexible plan to deliver it.

There were dozens of MPs and probably tens of thousands of party members who showed no sign of getting this. They still wanted fantasy over reality. It didn’t result in Boris back in No 10, but it showed that a significan­t faction of the party wasn’t willing to listen, learn or be governed by realists.

During his abortive campaign Boris Johnson called scores of backbenche­rs, telling them the scandals over wallpaper, girlfriend­s and parties would be long forgotten come the next election and he would lift them to victory on a cloud of boosterism. Note he didn’t say that he was wrong, or innocent and would be vindicated, just that it would be forgotten. They looked willing to be taken for fools.

A big section of the most successful political party in history needs to accept reality. Johnson caused massive damage by appearing to care only about himself; Truss threw away the trump card of sound money. Both things mean it will be a long road back to electoral credibilit­y. The next election is probably gone – and Sunak needs to be allowed to limit the damage.

And yet, many fanatics queued up to tell us, “Only Boris can win!” They seem to have erased the shambolic 30 months that succeeded it, ending with their champion blowing up himself. There are already signs many MPs will not accept Sunak’s leadership. One wag described being in Birmingham like being on a plane flying at 30,000 feet when all the engines suddenly cut out. Conservati­ve MPs need to realise they are still on that plane. If many of them refuse to unite and let someone provide direction based in reality, they will crash into the mountainsi­de of the next general election. Watching the few survivors, onlookers will ask, “Why are they still squabbling?” But the country will rightly have moved on.

“A significan­t faction of the party isn’t willing to listen, learn or be governed by realists”

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