Oxford University issues the following guidance to prospective candidates: “Be honest with yourself and what has inspired you.” It pains me to say it, but the Conservative Party, of which I was once chairman, has lost touch with that essential message.
We are in a muddle about what we offer. We cannot answer the simple question: What do we believe in? And because we cannot, we have a terrible problem communicating it with passion, simplicity and authenticity. We cannot look voters in the eye.
You cannot win an ideological war against someone like Jeremy Corbyn without an ideology of your own. When asked to explain her recipe for greater prosperity, Mrs Thatcher provided the simplest, most inspiring version of conservatism you could wish for. “A bigger cake,” she said, talking about growth, “means a bigger slice for everyone”.
Just 11 months ago, when she became Prime Minister, Theresa May said she wanted to fight against inequality, injustice and unfairness to create a society in which anyone could prosper. That too was inspiring. But we heard nothing of that in this election.
Instead, the Conservative Party has been reduced to suggesting that our great virtue is that we know how to make difficult decisions; that we are the people who look after the money. But this fails to take into account the one great lesson I have learnt, which is that inspiration always beats cynicism. “I Have A Dream” always beats “Get Real”.
Our suppression of idealism has angered people, and has led directly to today’s turmoil. Let me make this absolutely clear: the encouragement of the idealism among voters is essential for the survival of the Conservative Party. We need more optimism, a greater balance between revelation and reason. Instead of suggesting that we are searching for the centre ground, we would do better to fight to move the centre ground to where we’re standing. We need a vision. So the question arises, how to communicate that now we are in such difficulty?
The answer is that once you have a message you believe in, its delivery is easy. Authenticity, passion, simplicity – Jeremy Corbyn has two, often all three of those qualities. The Conservative Party, by contrast, has been seduced by that idea that the voter is a “consumer” and the political party is a “brand”. This is a fatal error, driven by a well- meaning belief in rational and mathematical solutions to human problems. Rather than stand by policies, followers of this strategy aim to find out what voters had for breakfast and what kind of lettuce they like, the better to precision-target communications and win votes. The only problem with this, as Hillary Clinton and now Theresa May have found out, is that it does not work.
The Prime Minister rediscover her own authenticity and passion if she is to survive. She must become once again the politician who spoke with such conviction last July. It can be done. Many have questioned whether she can change, whether she can communicate better. But she has already shown that she can connect once. Why not again?
Ironically, the task of rebuilding is actually suited to her personality. Ronald Reagan insisted that America must never allow itself to be put in a position of moral inferiority. By abandoning ideology, the Conservative Party has put itself in just that position. This may sound like a philosophical claptrap. But the British people are vastly more sophisticated than we give them credit for. They do not fall for dry political chess moves.
Theresa May, the vicar’s daughter, is well placed to reassert her party’s moral supremacy. If she cannot, she will be forced out. That may happen anyway. But Conservative leaders come and go. They have their friends who rise with them, and then they’re out. Such is the brutality of politics, which makes my own world of business look like a school of playground. Even so, there is one sure fire way of holding on to your job in politics, and that is to win elections. And without ideology, there can be no victory.
This piece was originally published by The Daily Telegraph on 13 June 2017.