George Eustice MP: Lessons for Labour from the Tories' 2005 cathartic leadership contest
George Eustice was the Conservative Party's Head of Media from 2004 until the 2005 General Election and Press Secretary to David Cameron from 2005 until 2007. He is now MP for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle.
There are few things more draining than the morning after an election defeat. In 2005, having had only a couple of hours sleep, I was woken by a call at 6.30am from Michael Howard’s Political secretary, Rachel Whetstone, to tell me that he was about to resign.
On the way to Putney, where he would drop this bombshell, there were frantic efforts to persuade him to stay on. By the time he got there he had added to his statement that he would stay on until the party had considered a change to its constitution. He discussed it further with advisers and ended up announcing his decision to resign on the last day of the Conservative Party Conference later that year. In doing so he deliberately unleashed a completely unpredictable debate about the future of the party. It culminated in five days during that 2005 conference where this process took place in the full glare of the national media and with the whole country watching.
At the time it was seen as a risky strategy, doomed to be a public relations disaster. But it turned out to be a masterstroke which transformed the fortunes of the Conservative Party. It was arguably one of the most important decisions Michael Howard ever took.
The only time a political party can completely let go of the reins and see where the debate leads is in the immediate aftermath of an election defeat. The Conservative Party used the months after the 2005 General Election to create the space in which a new vibrancy was able to develop. In the most visible way possible, by the beginning of December when the new leader was announced, the party had chosen to change itself under David Cameron’s leadership. By contrast the Labour Party has played it safe, stifled discussion and the result has been a stale debate, petty squabbling and an entirely uninspiring affair.
One of the problems with politics in the modern age is that most people engage with it primarily through the filter of the media, which moves as a herd and is most comfortable focusing only on splits, attacks, polls and cock-ups. The effect of this is to exacerbate prevailing assumptions and, invariably, to favour incumbency and familiarity over the untried and unknown. It takes a big event to blow apart those assumptions and send the herd in a new direction.
In 2005, the overwhelming media assumption throughout August and September was that the leadership contest was between Ken Clarke and David Davis, with the latter almost certain to win. No one else had a chance. I can remember the front page Telegraph headline on the Monday of Conference confidently predicting, “It’s Clarke v Davis.”
But having an energising conference dedicated to the leadership contest was the big event that blew apart all these assumptions. There was an atmosphere of complete and utter flux with the mood changing hour by hour as different speeches were delivered. By the Tuesday evening of Conference, the journalists didn’t know what to think about anything anymore. The process had effectively been taken away from them by the party members. A very real debate was being played out live on stage in the most unscripted, public and unpredictable way.
Polls prior to the conference suggested that public recognition of David Cameron was little more than 2 or 3 percent. This led the media to assume that he had no chance. But the process of exposing the public to someone completely new for five days solid on the main news bulletins had the power to be a game changing event. David Cameron moved from no-hoper to front runner in less than a week. He was stretched and grew into the role day by day as each new challenge presented itself. By the end of October, he was already tougher and more decisive than he had been in July.
So where was the game changing debate in the Labour Party? Where was the big event that could blow apart the assumption that you have to be called Milliband to be Labour Leader? Where was the opportunity for someone fresh who no one has heard of to steal the show?
The answer is that the Labour Party made a huge error in the closed way they ran their leadership contest. The leader will be announced before their Conference, not two months afterwards as in 2005. The intention was to avoid public debate, to minimise disagreement, to sidestep controversy. What has resulted is a contest of a deeply underwhelming nature – as acknowledged by senior figures on their own side – characterised solely by occasional outbursts of bitterness and fratricidal infighting to break up the rhythm of otherwise mind-numbing tedium.
The Labour Party has missed the opportunity to have their own cathartic moment and, in doing so, they will remain trapped and defined by their recent history. Their 1990s style obsession with controlling the message was once seen as a strength, but now it manifests itself as a weakness: a defensive, risk averse mindset that condemns any new talent in the party to cower in the shadow of the past. The internal Labour Party division between ‘Blairites’ and ‘Brownites’ is set to dominate the party for another generation because they haven’t allowed themselves to be cleansed of it. It’s a decision that will haunt whoever takes over the leadership on Saturday.
One of Michael Howard’s reasons for running the contest the way he did in 2005 was that he wanted all the candidates to be “tested” so that members could see what they were made of. The person who should have been made the leader of the Labour Party is probably in there somewhere, but they were never given the opportunity to be tested or to prove themselves ready. Perhaps the importance of such competition is something Conservatives will always understand better than Labour.