Stewart Jackson MP: We need to stop fighting each other - corrosively and arrogantly - and start fighting Labour
Stewart Jackson is the Member of Parliament for Peterborough. Follow Stewart on Twitter.
At the outset, I should make it clear I am speaking for myself (and no-one else), and I always have done. I don’t seek to apologise for or admonish any individuals.
I believe that healthy debate is essential for a healthy party, but that doesn’t mean I am in favour of airing dirty laundry in public. That is why I am frustrated that reports of last Wednesday’s rather grumpy 1922 meeting have become public. The behaviour of some of my colleagues went way beyond rudeness and incivility. It did none of us any favours - which is why what happened in that meeting should not be repeated.
But what that meeting indicated is that the Parliamentary Party is clearly divided on several issues - and David Cameron’s leadership in particular. He is under pressure because he is perceived by a good number as "not a team player", and because of frustration at the constant sense of compromise created by being in coalition. In turn, this criticism causes those who feel the need to defend Mr Cameron "at all costs" - to accept no criticism of him as valid, with the attacks from both sides often becoming personal.
History teaches us is that divided parties lose elections, although I know John Redwood might disagree with this analysis. If a party is not comfortable with itself, then the country is not going to trust it with power. Unity is therefore fundamental to winning elections, and even more important than having a charismatic leader, or the perfect set of policies. This is something which many folk at the moment seem to have forgotten, and we need to rediscover the ability to disagree, without tearing ourselves to shreds. Part of that is being able to vent and articulate concerns without fear of being shouted down by other colleagues.
The current tensions – as displayed at last Wednesday’s meeting - are ridiculous. The 1922 Committee is there specifically to give MPs from all wings and all intakes an opportunity to air their concerns and thoughts, with those views being reflected back to the Prime Minister. The '22 is both the ears and the mouthpiece of the Parliamentary Party, and those who seek to clamp down on debate and criticism of the leadership do the party no good and fundamentally misunderstand the role of the ‘22.
A few colleagues have given the impression of trying to prevent debate and enforce "loyalty", which is destined only to have the opposite effect – create resentment amongst those (such as me): who after nearly 30 years in Conservative politics, having served as a local councillor, fought and lost elections, served in the Whips’s office and on the front bench, feel such behaviour is corrosive and arrogant. Such arrogance - and arrogance it is - breeds contempt and makes the debate needlessly personal. The issues get forgotten and nothing gets resolved. "Command and Control: as a style of leadership only works if you have proven yourself in the heat of battle. Issuing "do as I tell you" orders will only be followed when the troops know the commander has "walked the walk".
Despite his many talents and notable achievements, David Cameron cannot yet claim he has: he didn't win an overall majority. Therefore, to keep happy those who are much less comfortable with his (perceived) liberal conservatism, he needs to start sounding like a Conservative even if the Coalition prevents him from governing like one, and those who seek to cheerlead for him need to show some respect for those who are entitled to their legitimate concerns. After all, we are not enacting our party manifesto (because we don’t have a majority) and nor were we even consulted in 2010 on the Coalition Agreement, so a little room for manoeuvre is surely inevitable and probably wise in party management terms. The voters these days very clearly hate slavish party toadies and appreciate occasional displays of independence every once in a while.
This is not an issue of which wing of the party you come from, or which intake you are in – the ability to be divisive is found in all wings and all intakes. This is about credibility amongst your colleagues, and showing respect for them. It is not about what is said, but the way it is said. It is about taking people with you, not alienating them. Politics is a game for those good with people. If you cannot claim the respect of your own team, what hope is there of commanding the support of the country?
Those who seek to champion the Prime Minister within the Parliamentary Party would be wise to note who his best advocates are, and more importantly, why they are! It is often because they can demonstrate "hinterland", have the ability to make a fair point and most importantly, can agree to disagree without becoming offensive. They would do well to accept some criticism as valid, and when they do not believe the criticism is valid, to accept colleagues have the right to make criticisms none the less. Fewer derogatory references to older colleagues by “sources close to...” would help greatly too!
I, as an unashamed pragmatist on the right of the party, might not agree with 100% of what others on the centre-left of the party say, but I reserve the right for them to say it providing it is done so in a way which doesn't cause offence. I also recognise that I have more in common with the Tory Reform Group than I ever will with the Labour Party. They, the Labour Party, are the real obstacle to sorting this country out, and to prevent this country sleepwalking into another five years of Labour government, this great party needs to pull together and in the same direction.
Seeking to clamp down on debate, "take over" the '22 and attacking those who have legitimate concerns will only create more division and hostility within the party. The Conservative Party belongs to us all. It doesn’t belong to one wing or one faction or one intake. And neither is it not the property of its leader – who is merely lent the position for a season. Forget that, and both the leader and the party will fall.
We have much to be proud of over the last two years. Huge and courageous reforms in education, housing, local government and welfare, taking many poorer working people out of tax, new apprenticeships and an excellent record on supporting our pensioners, to name a number of key policies we’ve enacted already. There is a need, and indeed room, for all views within the Conservative Party, and if we want to win the next election then we need to realise this again, pull together, stop fighting each other and start fighting Labour.