DAN HODGES: If no Tory able to see off Keir, the party should give up

DAN HODGES: If there really is no other Tory able to see of St Keir, the party should turn off the lights

On Thursday evening, I arrived at the Lords Meadow Leisure Centre in Crediton for the Tiverton and Honiton by-election count. Party agents and activists were milling around expectantly, and the classic heady mix of election excitement and chlorine hung heavy in the air.

Just after 11 o’clock, the first ballot boxes began arriving, and the sampling began. I opened up my notebook and jotted down some partial returns. Box 41 – Lib Dems 30, Tories 13. Box 43 – Lib Dems 57, Tories 38. Box 26 – Lib Dems 28, Tories 14.

A clear pattern was emerging. The Tories were in deep trouble.

Moments later my phone rang. It was a Tory Minister. ‘What do we do?’ he asked.

As the dust settles on a seismic loss to the Lib Dems, many of his colleagues are asking the same question. Anger has been replaced by despair. ‘I don’t see any way out of this,’ another Minister confessed.

There is a way out. The first thing Conservative MPs need to do is ask themselves a simple question. Is there any sign Boris Johnson has the first clue how to extricate the country and his party from the mess he¿s placed them in?

There is a way out. The first thing Conservative MPs need to do is ask themselves a simple question. Is there any sign Boris Johnson has the first clue how to extricate the country and his party from the mess he’s placed them in?

There is a way out. The first thing Conservative MPs need to do is ask themselves a simple question. Is there any sign Boris Johnson has the first clue how to extricate the country and his party from the mess he’s placed them in?

Let’s just pick issues at random. First, taxes and the cost-of-living crisis. In March, Boris boasted: ‘We’re cutting taxes for working people.’ Last week, Downing Street announced the Government was ‘not planning to cut taxes for households until inflation is brought under control, meaning action is unlikely before next year’.

Or what about the Rwanda policy? In April, No 10 let it be known that ‘Boris Johnson wants the first illegal migrants flown to Rwanda in six weeks’. Following a series of legal challenges, the Prime Minister’s spokesman admitted it would now be a ‘matter of months’ before the first deportations commenced.

How about the crown jewel of Brexit? Tory MPs have been desperate for a way to show the faith the nation placed in Boris to ‘get Brexit done’ was being rewarded.

So last week, up popped Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg. He announced that, as a result of changes the Government was implementing, it would be possible to amend the safety signs in the Dartford Tunnel so they were in yards, rather than metres. So much for winning over hearts and minds down in Devon.

Having spent several days in Tiverton, it was clear there was anger at Partygate. There was also a significant degree of tactical voting. But the discontent among traditional Tory voters went deeper.

They have had enough of excuses. In 2019, they voted for Boris to get things done. What they didn’t vote for was an endless ream of self-serving justification about why he was being prevented from getting things done.

Liberal judges. Perfidious Eurocrats. Truculent Remainers. Yes, they exist, and yes, they are trying to sabotage the Government’s agenda. But Boris pledged to steamroller them. Instead, they’re currently sitting around their dinner tables in North London and Brussels mocking his impotence.

Collectively and individually the Tories should be more than capable of giving St Keir a run for his money

Collectively and individually the Tories should be more than capable of giving St Keir a run for his money

What Tory MPs need to realise is things are not going to change under Boris. Because for that to happen it would require Boris himself to change. And he can’t. Asked by the BBC how he would respond to his by-election humiliation, he replied: ‘If you’re saying you want me to undergo some sort of psychological transformation, I think your listeners should know that is not going to happen.’

Of course it isn’t. The last week of campaigning in the Tiverton and Wakefield by-elections was dominated by the rail strikes. But beneath the Summer of Discontent headlines two significant stories emerged.

One was an admission from Cabinet Secretary Simon Case that he’d had ‘informal conversations’ about securing a job opportunity for the Prime Minister’s wife Carrie Johnson. That came after a separate story – first revealed in this newspaper months ago – about Boris attempting to appoint Mrs Johnson, his then partner, as Chief of Staff at the Foreign Office while he was Foreign Secretary.

The other bit of news was the revelation that Boris’s current Chief of Staff Steve Barclay had written to Rishi Sunak to propose lifting the cap on bankers’ pay. Barclay was specifically brought into No 10 to get a grip of the Government’s political direction and delivery of its objectives. And his idea of doing this is reportedly to allow an orgy of City bonuses while the country is being told to cut another hole in its belt in the fight against inflation? No one is going to get a grip of Boris’s No 10. The endless psychodramas surrounding his wife and chronic dysfunctionality will define Downing Street for as long as he remains in Downing Street.

And the British people are fed up with it. Boris was successful in 2019 because he managed to re-unite the Conservative coalition that had fractured under Theresa May. But that coalition is again splintering.

Partly, that’s due to a perceived failure to deliver in Red Wall constituencies. But it’s also because of a lack of empathy for traditional Tory voters.

The dozens of seats Boris wrestled from Labour’s northern heartlands were vital to his success in 2019. But so was holding on to the 300 seats he inherited from May. Yet Tory voters and members in these areas seem to be treated at best as an after-thought, at worst as inconvenient relics.

Yes, many traditional Tories want to see Brexit delivered. They expect sound controls on immigration. And they have little time for fleeting woke fashions.

But they expect other things too. A commitment to national service. Dignity in public office. Respect for the rule of law. A grasp of sound finance.

To turn round its political fortunes the Conservative Party needs someone who can construct a broad political tent, one that accommodates both Red Wall and True Blue voters. And to do that, it requires the Tory Party to finally see Boris as the rest of the country sees him. And to start seeing Sir Keir Starmer the way voters do.

‘We don’t have another candidate,’ one Tory MP wailed to me last week. Come off it. There is not a single other candidate who can beat Labour’s politically hypocritical, vacillating, self-righteous, shape-shifter? Just about any Tory MP who doesn’t have an internet account and fixation for tractors would be in with a chance.

Liz Truss has shown she is a Minister who can actually deliver on her Brexit promises. Ben Wallace has faced down Vladimir Putin. Michael Gove moulds radicalism with vision.

The much-maligned Priti Patel has shown she has the mettle to stand up to liberal critics. Nadhim Zahawi is patiently and quietly extricating the nation’s children from their Covid nightmare.

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case admitted that he¿d had ¿informal conversations¿ about securing a job opportunity for the Prime Minister¿s wife Carrie Johnson

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case admitted that he’d had ‘informal conversations’ about securing a job opportunity for the Prime Minister’s wife Carrie Johnson

Below them sits a new generation of talented Tory MPs and Ministers. Tom Tugendhat. James Cleverly. Penny Mordaunt. Simon Clarke. Collectively and individually they should be more than capable of giving St Keir a run for his money. And if they can’t, then frankly the last person to leave the Conservative Party should switch off the lights.

Yes, they can trudge on behind Boris if they wish. But then they need to be honest with the country, and with themselves.

Nothing is going to change. Boris has admitted as much. There is no delivery strategy for Brexit. There is no real strategy for tackling the refugee crisis. There is no economic strategy.

There is simply a vague hope in No 10 that one or other of the back-of-a-fag-packet solutions they’ve frantically scribbled will somehow get lucky. Or that if they don’t, that pointing a finger at the same old targets will convince the voters to hold their noses, and stick with the blond devil they know.

They might. But they didn’t in Tiverton. They didn’t in Wakefield. And as things look this morning, if the Tory Party continues to march in step with Boris, it’s marching to oblivion.

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