In the 35 years since I was first elected to serve in the House of Commons, I can think of no more daunting set of circumstances for a new prime minister to inherit. It is as if all the problems of the past 50 years have descended on us in one fell swoop. The industrial relations problems and energy price hikes of the 1970s. The inflation of the 1980s and the onslaught of a biblical famine in east Africa. The devastation and war in Europe of the 1990s and the financial crisis and economic instability of the 2000s – as well as the difficult relationship with our neighbours in the EU.
Add to these terrifying price hikes, rising interest rates on mortgages and rent rises. Is it any wonder our younger generation is the first since the first world war to believe that they will be less well off than their parents.
But history shows us that it is not problems that bring down governments. It is the way politicians and leaders deal with them that determines political destiny. So here are four areas that should preoccupy Liz Truss and her new administration.
First, our constituents need urgent reassurance that horrifying energy price rises which risk causing destitution and collapse are to be addressed effectively. Clearly, this must involve using the benefits system for our most vulnerable citizens. People are also furious that energy companies pass on petrol price rises at the pump within hours, while price reductions can take weeks to come through. And we need to give the process of retrofitting Britain’s housing stock a Nasa-style rocket boost. UK homes are some of the most expensive to heat in Europe because of poor maintenance and insulation.
These price rises are unprecedented in recent times and, God willing, temporary. The government needs to organise a financial structure – a long-term debt instrument – that evens out these gyrations, possibly over many years. And although there is no reason why the state needs to own the electricity industry, we need total transparency of profits, earnings and efficiencies so that these companies operate openly and wholly in the public interest.
Above all, for those who think the green levy an irrelevance and who dislike the “green crap”, don’t forget that while UK gas prices are likely to rise to more than 20p per kWh by January, the latest round of offshore wind development produced a contract for delivering electricity at 3.7p a kWh (yes, under 4p). Onshore wind capacity built now will probably be 3p or less. As with solar power, we should be in no doubt where our price and security of supply interests now lie.
Second, the new leadership must properly grip the issue of immigration. We have to improve, radically, cooperation and our relationship with France. We have to agree safe and legal routes for those who are genuinely fleeing persecution. In practice, such routes only exist at the moment for Afghans and Ukrainians. And we have to streamline the absurdly lengthy appeals system and employ the necessary staff to process applications in a timely way. Above all, Britain needs to use its diplomatic clout to organise the renegotiation of the 1951 UN convention on refugees, which is hopelessly out of date.
Third, the government (the executive), needs to improve its relationship with parliament and the legislature. The general denigration of MPs over recent years (and yes, not without cause) has fed into an unhealthy disrespect for parliament. While politicians have always been denigrated (just look at James Gillray’s cartoons of the 19th century), parliament has not. It is a serious error of judgment for members of the government to question publicly the workings of the privileges committee and, even worse, the integrity of its individual members who are carrying out the instructions of the House of Commons. Not the least of the reasons for Boris Johnson’s demise was his apparent view that he could act as a president, rather than the Queen’s first minister in parliament.
Fourth, ministers and officials need to stop perceiving MPs from both sides of the house as an irritating nuisance. Where cross-party policy development takes place, the government should show more respect and genuine interest while accepting that parliament can be a useful ally and is not always a difficult and uncomprehending opponent.
Finally, what is the lesson for the Conservative party as it seeks a historic fifth term in government? I served as a government whip and junior minister between 1992 and 1997. While Keir Starmer may not be Tony Blair, I see signs of great danger for my party. The Conservative party is a coalition – with the European Research Group representing one fine tradition and the one nation group representing another. Wise leaders recognise the importance of respecting these different strands.
The circular firing squad that characterised the 1995-1997 period of Tory government should not – must not – be replicated. Our new leader must set about the urgent and serious task of sorting the nation’s myriad problems. They can only succeed with the backing of a united party and an empowered parliament. Our country and my party’s destiny depend upon it.
Andrew Mitchell is the Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield. His book, Beyond a Fringe: Tales from a Reformed Establishment Lackey, is out now
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