‘But he was silly to do it. I don’t know if you’re aware, I told him not to. And I said, ‘I am not going to make that pledge.’ But he felt he needed to outflank me, you know, with some of the most determined of what would have been early Brexiteers … And it cost him later. He obviously calculated it was important to him. I thought it wasn’t.’
That was David Davis on the contest for the Conservative leadership in 2005 when he, the frontrunner, was in the last two with eventual winner David Cameron. He was talking about Cameron’s pledge in that contest to pull the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party (EPP) grouping in the European Parliament to placate the party’s Eurosceptics. It secured him the support of MPs like Douglas Carswell (who preferred a ‘malleable Remainer’ to a ‘pretend Eurosceptic’ like Davis).
Others, like former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve thought it was a huge error: ‘When he became leader, he, crazily – I think it was one of the biggest mistakes he ever made – took us out of the partnership with our European Christian Democratic colleagues and put us in with another group, which he got poor William [Hague] to go and negotiate.’ Many said that it was a move that alienated the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A decade after that leadership contest, as Cameron sought Merkel’s support for a fundamental renegotiation of UK membership, this came back to haunt him.
But why revisit a pledge made almost seventeen years ago? Because that was the last time there was a proper contest for the affections of the Conservative membership not overshadowed completely by Brexit. The May-Leadsom contest in 2016 was derailed before it got going by Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal (if it had continued we might have had a better idea of what Theresa May thought Brexit meant – and some of her future missteps might have been avoided, but we will never know). Johnson and Hunt really did very little beyond commit to Brexit. The EPP example shows that policy pledges made in desperation to win over a few more votes can have long-term consequences.
We are back now in another whirlwind tour of nationwide hustings with every day bringing a new policy from one of our two potential next prime ministers. In the last day Liz Truss has been forced to backtrack on her pledge to make big savings by regionalising public sector pay – something that left Teesside mayor Ben Houchen ‘speechless’ and undermined her commitment of the week before to be the candidate of the North. That policy pledge lasted less than 12 hours from press release to U-turn, suggesting at the least that Truss is even better than the outgoing prime minister at rapid repudiation of untenable policy positions.
But pity the civil servants trying to make sense of the policy pledges that are raining down as the candidates outbid each other. The really unlucky ones will be charged with telling incoming ministers that these are less easy than they think, knowing that both candidates are determined to show that their governments will not be cowed by such doomsterish and obstructionist advice.
They will also need to warn those ministers of some of the problems that have grown worse over the summer which they will have to address (set out in our joint publication with Full Fact): public service backlogs and staffing problems which make the case for more money not less; battles over public and quasi-public sector pay; the need for an immediate package to help the most vulnerable with energy bills and the raging cost of living – and the potential risks to energy supply over the winter. Both candidates appear committed to maintaining a hardline stance on the Northern Ireland protocol so they face the prospect of worsening relations with the EU while they will have to spend a chunk of their autumns working out what comes next in Northern Ireland. And, like their predecessors, they will be diverted by crises national and international.
The candidates would be doing themselves a service if they made clear to those voting for them that they understand the extent of the challenges that citizens and business now face, and would be setting themselves up better for successful premierships if they focused on how they would govern.
Rishi Sunak said he was resigning in part because the Johnson government wasn’t meeting public expectation to govern ‘properly, competently and seriously’ but has said nothing on what he would change.
Liz Truss’s slogan is ‘Trusted to deliver’ but has said nothing about why she would be any more successful at delivery than Johnson.
Then they can offer a few new policy thoughts and indicate their longer-term priorities. It would be good to hear any ideas about how to address the UK’s long-term productivity problem or be clear on their approach to net zero. They should take advantage of their experience in government (which in Truss’s case is quite extensive, having served in six departments) to make sure that their proposals do not just appeal in a hall of Conservative members but will also survive contact with inconvenient reality.
But instead they are boxing themselves in by offering big tax cuts when the economy is precarious and with spending demands mounting up. They are in a competition to appear ‘more brexity than thou’ by outbidding each other on how soon we can get rid of EU law. Sunak immediately slapped down a Truss proposal to allow more seasonal workers in – something farmers are desperate for. It would be interesting to hear if either candidate was at all interested in resetting the Conservatives relationship with the business mainstream.
August is supposed to be the news-free ‘silly season’. The risk is that a silly season leadership contest through August, accompanied by a crescendo of policy pledges, leaves the UK facing an even bleaker winter.
And, as David Cameron learnt, policy pledges made in haste can rebound at leisure.
By Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.