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Tories must face hard truths: Reform-lite wreckers like Braverman are why the public just don’t like us | Justine Greening


Llast week the results of the local elections could finally sink Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party. He lost all but one of the 11 mayoral races, and while Ben Houchen continued in Tees Valley it was by a reduced majority. Labor was out of sight in winning the Blackpool South By-election with a 26% swing and wider in England’s local elections, the Tories lost almost half the council seats they were defending.

These losses are stunning, but so is the reaction of the would-be Tory rebels, the Reform-lite group. They assumed they wouldn’t challenge Sunak now; as Suella Braverman put it, it is Sunak that should “own this and fix it”. This is the height of political self-awareness – because their political game plan is the one Sunak’s ungovernable No. 10 is trying to follow. It is as a result of their political misjudgments that support for the party has collapsed across the country and across generations of voters – so much so that, shockingly, the party is only now leading in age group of voters above 70 years. The results of the local elections in 2024 are their responsibility, not just the prime minister’s.

From time to time, Sunak has turned increasingly sharply to this group’s uniquely unpopular political agenda, whether in his strange speech at the conference attacking the 30-year-old failed status quo, raging against the apparently ubiquitous “wokeness” agenda, igniting divisive but headline-grabbing culture wars or even now threatens to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

And the more Sunak dances to the light political tune of reforms, the worse the party does in the polls. Far from suggesting the party must continue with more of the same, Thursday’s election results showed voters are rejecting the very reform-inspired agenda it is pursuing. This direction has so clearly set the party back, to the extent that it barely managed to win a second place in Blackpool South, the latest disaster in the by-election for Conservatives. To suggest, as they do now, that Sunak should try harder with a strategy that has already failed is selfish madness.

This is also bad math. In places like South Blackpool or London, even combining UK Conservative and Reform voters into a ‘coalition’ of support would be insufficient to win a general election. In London, after deliberate overnight speculation on Friday that the race would be tight, the Tory mayoral candidate performed even worse than last time. Meanwhile, in Braverman’s own part of Fareham, the party lost advisers to the Liberal Democrats. The crazy thing is that when it comes into the national picturethe party finds itself in a battle for a small pool of voters with the third party, the Reformers, while abandoning and alienating much more at the center of British politics to Labour, which is in first place by a wide margin.

Their strategy stumbles at every obstacle. Today’s reform conservatives are losing badly, and more of the same cannot be the solution.

The problem is they don’t have a positive vision for our country, just a long list of things and people they dislike and oppose while they tilt at every “woke” windmill they can think of. These questions are irrelevant and turn most voters off.

Most importantly, the promise of equalization that voters across the country accepted – whether North or South, Leave or Remain – has been arrogantly abandoned by them and Sunak. Despite their constant finger-pointing at the ‘elites’, they still seem to have little to say about how we fundamentally level Britain so that everyone has fair access to opportunity, regardless of background.

Yet, whether you call it equalization, removal of barriers, or equality of opportunity, local election results show that it is the candidate and party that voters believe can actually provide for them and their families that consistently wins elections in present-day Britain.

In the Tees Valley, Houchen managed to hold back the political tide by demonstrably driving greater access to opportunities for local people and giving his own region the chance to be part of Britain’s economic success in the future. In Harlow, where a concerted leveling effort was made by the council, county council and respected local MP Robert Halfon, the Conservatives held their own. Andy Street may have loses the West Midlands town hall but he is a politician respected across party divides because he has a track record of delivering. His call for a moderate, tolerant and inclusive Conservative Party is right and the antithesis of the culture-war-driven, reformist Conservatives. In contrast, he should play a role in any future conservative revival.

By contrast, the Reform Conservatives, like Labour’s Corbynites, are far more preoccupied with making ideological political arguments, theorizing about deep state conspiracies and demonstrating that they are separate from our everyday lives, than making proposals about what is necessary, ambitious and the comprehensive plan Britain needs to promote social mobility.

Backing away from a Conservative leadership coup that they clearly assume will fail suggests they believe they can’t even win the argument within their own party, let alone the wider country. Yet they still plan to stage the public equivalent of a coup. They might say it’s about forcing Sunak to own the results, but that’s just an excuse. What they really want is for Sunak to continue to carry the can for their own failing political strategy. They just find their excuses early, unable to see what everyone else in the country can: that they are the people who are turning millions of voters away from voting Conservative. And the longer this goes on, the more damage they will do to the party and the harder it will be to regain public trust.

They are precisely the problem the Conservative Party must now face if it is ever to prosper electorally again. While the Reform-lite continue to vociferously monopolize the debate, waging their futile finger-pointing and vote-losing culture wars, they are preventing the wider party from facing the hard truths about where it is going next.

  • Justine Greening was Education Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, 2016-18, and Conservative MP for Putney, 2005-19.

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