Gainsborough

Sir Edward Leigh: The courage to continue after the general election

It has been some three months since I last penned a column for Lincolnshire Reporter. When I last wrote it was in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack on Westminster. Since then we have faced similar attacks in Manchester and Borough Market in London and real tragedy with the fire at the Grenfell Tower block.

Despite these attacks, that would attempt to undermine our way of life, we are still here, we continue on in defiance – much like Simon Smith, the man in Reading who got knocked down by a bus and, in a video that has gone viral, simply brushes himself off and walks into a pub, seemingly unscathed.

The world of politics continues; relentless and unabated. We have seen the election of a new county council for Lincolnshire, where Conservatives strengthened their position to take overall control of the council, a vindication that in local government Conservatives deliver for local people.

Across Britain we have been convulsed by a snap general election that delivered an inconclusive result. The first since 1974, which saw my party’s slender majority prior to the poll reduced to just shy of half the House of Commons.

I was very pleased with my personal result within the Gainsborough constituency.

It was my ninth general election campaign victory and the party’s 24th successive victory since we won the seat from the Liberals in 1924.

I received 31,790 votes which is the highest poll for any candidate since the seat was created in 1878, beating my previous best in 1992 of 31,444, increasing the gap between my Labour opponent and myself.

It was also the first time that a candidate in the constituency has ever polled above sixty per cent.

Nevertheless, the overall result nationally was an election that nobody won.

The Conservatives lost our majority, Labour lost: Having not secured sufficient additional seats to be able to challenge us for Number 10 – even if you combine all the other parties.

The Liberal Democrats lost their leader within days of the result and certainly showed no sign of the ‘fight-back’ they are always so keen to say is happening (although a cursory glance at the local election results a month earlier would have pointed to that) and UKIP disappeared from the House of Commons and those voters who had hitherto supported them deserted the sinking ship.

I had hoped that the polls showing a wider lead between the Conservatives and Labour were more accurate than the ones that showed a tight race between the two parties.

In a first-past-the-post system like ours it is often not the number of votes cast for each party that is critical, but the gap between the two main parties.

I think the signs were there that Labour was having a good campaign and the Conservative campaign, nationally was faltering.

I thought the endless attacks on Jeremy Corbyn were ill-advised and that setting out our own stall is far more valuable than trashing an opponent’s.

The Conservative Party’s electoral performance has traditionally depended on three things: securing overwhelming support amongst its core AB voters; securing solid support amongst C1 voters; and winning over equal numbers of C2 voters as our opponents.

The remaining DE voters are useful, and their support welcome, but they traditionally tend to vote for Labour. It was this formulation that gave the Conservatives majorities, even if slender, in both 1992 and 2015. The slow and steady improvement in the party’s electoral performance from 2005 to 2015 reflects our gradually improving performance amongst both C1 and C2 voters.

It’s undoubtedly true that the Conservatives have an impending problem with younger voters, which requires urgent attention.

We need to build a broad consensus in order to govern – to borrow a phrase – for the many, not the few. We need to appeal to those at the top, those and the bottom and those who find themselves between the two.

We must generate policies to make people’s lives easier; take positions on cultural issues that speak to their hearts.

On the former, the party offered little: we all but pledged to raise taxes; seemed to threaten a raid on people’s savings for old age; and began to unpick middle class welfare; and said nothing to address the cost of driving or improving healthcare.

On the latter, after an electrifying early conflict with Jean Claude Juncker, we ducked any further substantial conflict with hostile politicians and failed to engage on issues like crime and human rights.

Party strategists in Conservative Campaign Headquarters in London should not overlook the obvious: that without building a broad consensus it will be next to impossible to secure a parliamentary majority.

The ordinary, just-about-managing families must be the foundation of that consensus. Living in commuter towns and the suburban villages; they work in ordinary jobs; they have mortgages; they hold traditional views on many issues. But they ultimately determine who governs.

They must remain the focus of the Conservative Party in the coming Parliament.

I know that many people who supported me felt disappointed and angry that we did not secure the majority that the Prime Minister had called the election to secure. I recognise that a £1 billion deal with the DUP is not an ideal outcome. Nevertheless, I am reminded of the wisdom of Winston Churchill:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”

So, I know that together Conservatives locally will continue, making a real and positive difference to the communities we serve: On local parish councils, on the district councils, at County Hall or in Westminster.

I think that there are plenty of areas of commonality between the Conservatives and the DUP.

I know a lot of people have been concerned about their record on individual freedoms and the environment. I think a lot of these concerns are being overstated.

I have read their manifesto and could not find any mention of these issues and certainly not any commitment to try and reverse the UK government’s current position.

It seems to be a preoccupation of a metropolitan liberal elite who certainly don’t represent the traditional values of family, flag and faith which have been a sure foundation of my political philosophy over the past 34 years.

Theresa May is and will remain our prime minister. At such a critical time as this, now is not the moment to indulge in a leadership contest. We have the more important work to get on with of delivering successful Brexit negotiations.

It was great that more young people have, it seems, engaged in politics.

I was in my 20s, when I first contested a parliamentary seat, and just into my 30s when first elected.

Over the decades I have seen the change in our country – brought about by both Conservative and Labour governments – some of it very positive and some of it having a lasting, detrimental impact (like Public Private Finance or unrestrained migration).

I think that what people want, particularly young people, is for us to be positive, aspirational and honest. In the debates we have had following the Queen’s Speech last week there have been many calls for more public spending, but the money government spends ultimately always comes from hard-pressed taxpayers.

I make no apology for reminding anyone that our national debt stands at £1.7 trillion. In the last five minutes that will have risen by £443,000.

There is no point in talking about cutting the deficit if the national debt keeps rising remorselessly every year, to be a burden on the next generation, and the one that follows and the one that follows that, perpetually on and on without end.

Perhaps one of the most striking statistics to emerge following the result is that if just 401 people, in some of the most marginal contests, had switched from the winner to the Conservatives, Mrs. May would have a majority. It just shows how important a vote can be and why taking part in our democracy is such a responsibility.

I think the prime minister needs to recognise that young people have decided to engage with our democratic process.

Democracy is after all rule by the people, but very specifically those who participate. I think we will see some moves to recognise this engagement.

It may be a time of increased interest in our politics. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of people who are not engaged within our polity. Turnout in my constituency was just shy of 70%; nevertheless that means three in every 10 people didn’t vote, for whatever reason.

It is also clear that our politics has become more polarised.

I will continue to do my part to build consensus in the months and years ahead, and continue to do my best to represent everyone within my constituency.