Rishi Sunak can rescue the Tories like Harold Macmillan after Suez, writes former Conservative Party leader MICHAEL HOWARD
Yesterday was like nothing I have witnessed in my long political career. A prime minister resigning on the steps of Downing Street just 44 days into the job speaks of a turmoil entirely alien to British politics – and represents a sorry day in the history of the Conservative Party.
Yet it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for Liz Truss. To admit that you have been unable to do what you promised, after only a few weeks as Prime Minister, must be a bitter blow.
Nevertheless, she did the right thing. The country needs stable government – and it’s clear she cannot provide it.
It is impossible not to feel some sympathy for Liz Truss. To admit that you have been unable to do what you promised, after only a few weeks as Prime Minister, must be a bitter blow
Many people assume that Truss’s successor will inherit a poisoned chalice. The mood in the parliamentary party is gloomy. Conversations in the Westminster tea room merely imagine how bad the loss at the next General Election will be: a catastrophic rout on the scale of Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997, or something only slightly less humiliating.
But I believe that’s wrong. Though it may seem almost impossible to imagine now, history suggests that defeat is far from inevitable.
Back in 1957, Harold Macmillan, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, took over as Tory leader and Prime Minister after Anthony Eden stepped down amid the fiasco of the Suez Crisis. Labour was led by Hugh Gaitskell: a credible and popular figure from the moderate wing of his party.
Back in 1957, Harold Macmillan, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, took over as Tory leader and Prime Minister after Anthony Eden stepped down amid the fiasco of the Suez Crisis
Yet two years later, at the 1959 General Election, it was Macmillan who won a thumping majority of 100.
Trussism may have been an embarrassment – but Suez was a once-in-a-generation disaster. The sight of British forces invading Egypt, then humiliatingly withdrawing only days afterwards, was a wound to our national pride from which, in some respects, we never recovered.
Yet the Tories did recover. And even though the next Conservative leader is unlikely to adopt Macmillan’s 1959 election slogan – ‘You’ve never had it so good’ – if he or she is a serious figure, who takes the necessary tough decisions, the party can certainly win again. The next 12 months are likely to be difficult for many families. But inflation and mortgage rates may well be falling some time before the next election is held, in January 2025 at the latest.
Two years from now – a long time in politics – Sunak can repeat Macmillan’s achievement from all those years ago
And then a Conservative prime minister – by then in post for a couple of years – would be able to say to the country: ‘We’ve made the right calls and we’re all seeing the benefits. Don’t let Labour ruin it.’
Yes, it all seems very unlikely and far off as we survey the wreckage this morning. And of course I cannot guarantee it will happen. But it surely could – if the party takes the right approach.
And what is that?
First, the new leader must be chosen quickly and decisively. Conservative MPs must put aside their factions, swallow their various grievances and remember that they are there to serve the country’s interests – not their own.
They must unite behind a single candidate: The best-qualified person to provide the leadership the country yearns for.
Second, we must have a cabinet of all the talents. One of the worst mistakes Truss made was to pack hers with loyalists instead of the best people for the job.
In the party’s leadership election last summer, Rishi Sunak won the greatest support among his parliamentary colleagues
Finally, MPs will have to forsake their particular obsessions, however strongly felt, and provide the loyalty and support that will be vital if they hope to keep their seats.
In the party’s leadership election last summer, Rishi Sunak won the greatest support among his parliamentary colleagues. The margin of his defeat in the members’ vote was far smaller than had been predicted. And the clear and emphatic warnings he gave about the policies of his rival have been vindicated.
Two years from now – a long time in politics – Sunak can repeat Macmillan’s achievement from all those years ago. I urge my colleagues in the Commons to make this possible at once – or face annihilation when the voters have their say.
Lord Howard was leader of the Conservative Party from 2003-2005
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