Conservative leadership contest: wrong timing for the party, right timing for the country

Meme by Sadie Parker

In a recent edition of Conservative Home, my MP argued that now was not the time for a contest for leadership of the Conservative party, given the various, current national and international crises.

In the last Conservative leadership election, I did not vote for Boris Johnson. He subsequently sacked me from the Cabinet as he was perfectly entitled to do. I, therefore, cannot be accused of being a sycophant in writing that this is absolutely the wrong time for the Conservative Party to think about a leadership challenge.

Liam Fox, Conservative Home 6 Jan 2022

The first part of the statement is undeniable and a matter of record. The logic for the final clause is worth examining. He notes in his article that we face crises at home with the pandemic and inflation, and abroad, with China and the Ukraine, (What? Nothing happening in Ireland?) and he suggests that there should not be a Conservative leadership election while these crises are ongoing.

Given that it takes three months for the Conservative party to elect a new leader, do we really expect the world to stop spinning for 12 weeks while the party makes up its mind? When former Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan was asked what was the greatest challenge for a statesman, he replied: ‘Events, dear boy, events’. The first rule of project management puts it more prosaically: ‘shit happens’. And it is an obligation of a government to manage events whether it is having a leadership election or not. 

I know that we are ‘global Britain’ but, in reality, these crises will run their course, regardless of who leads the Conservative party. The Government could influence inflation in some respects (closer ties with Europe perhaps?) and it could take steps to manage the pandemic as we move on from Omicron through the Greek alphabet towards Omega (rather than pretending that it is all over). But China? Or Russia? We are a bit player that only has influence through our role as part of a larger group – and we have well and truly burned our boats on that one. We have a Prime Minister who has a gift for making worse any international issue that he touches – Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe or the visit to Myanmar –  and a Foreign Secretary whose knowledge of geography has to be corrected by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

On balance, the greatest risk is that we have to face a period of crisis with a prime minister who is the subject of international ridicule and who has betrayed the trust of his own electorate. His attention seems to be focused entirely on clinging to power, with the risk that foreign ‘adventures’ may be created to provide distractions from the problems at home. To quote my MP from the same article,

The current investigation into whether Covid rules were broken has opened a “one rule for one and another rule for others” narrative that will be hard to dispel. Perhaps more importantly, it has exposed what many of us have believed for some time to be a chaotic internal management system. Johnson has many strengths. Campaigning is one of them, administration is not.

Liam Fox

The argument that we are facing multiple crises really does not justify postponing the difficult decision: put simply, there is never a good time. Management in crisis requires leadership, which this prime minister has demonstrated that he cannot provide. Apparently the official photographer, (whom we, as taxpayers, are funding) has immortalised his inability to follow his own rules and set an example.  If he refuses to stand aside, then his MPs really must send him the message – regardless. As a doctor of medicine, my MP must know that you do not allow a boil to fester; you lance it as soon as practicable, otherwise it will get progressively worse.

The sooner that he is replaced, the sooner the UK can have a prime minister  who might command the respect that leadership requires.