“The House of Commons without whips,” Enoch Powell once wrote, “is like a city without sewers.” Frame the business of Parliament’s usual channels in those terms and it’s hardly surprising that only one Tory chief whip – Edward Heath – has ever managed to emerge from the shadows to take the leadership. Francis Urquhart doesn’t count. Gavin Williamson gave it a good go, but we all know how that ended. But as the field to succeed Theresa May widens, could Mark Harper?
Just about every list of runners and riders for the Conservative leadership identifies Harper, who served as chief whip in David Cameron’s final year as prime minsiter, as a contender. Colleagues describe him as a dark horse, despite his lack of a public profile: telegenic, closely acquainted with the workings of the parliamentary party, opposed to Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. So is he running? Everybody else seems to be, after all.
When I met Harper in his Commons office on the eve of the European elections, I put that question to him. He decorously invoked the memory of his own experience as a council candidate whose campaign was blighted by coverage of infighting at Westminster, but didn’t otherwise deny. “The Prime Minister in the not too distant future is going to stand down as leader of the Conservative Party, so questions about who follows her are for another day, but another day that I suspect isn’t too far into the future,” he said. “So you can come back and ask me again.” (I did, and no denial was forthcoming then either: his office say he will make his intentions clear by the end of the week.)
If Harper, isn’t standing, then it’s a terrible waste: he has an awful lot to say about the state a party he feels has lost its feel for governing in the three years since May consigned him to the backbenches. “We need to restore good governance,” he says firmly. “We need collective responsibility back.”
Elected MP for the Forest of Dean in 2005, Harper held ministerial office for near enough the entirety of Cameron’s premiership – save for a brief interlude in 2014, when he quit as immigration minister after learning his private cleaner did not have permission to work in the UK. As Chief Whip, he was responsible for keeping the first majority Conservative government in a quarter of a century – albeit one with only 16 MPs’ breathing space – on the road. Now on the backbenches, he is 49, but looks younger than the other survivors of the Cameron ministries. (Earlier this week, Harper gamely retweeted a member of the public who said they refused to believe he wasn’t a stock photo of a Tory MP.)
Where did it all go wrong? Despite voting Remain in 2016, Harper is clear that May’s failure to enact the result of the referendum is at the root of the party’s current malaise. He agrees with the proposition that the Tories cannot survive as a going electoral concern if it fails to do so. “I think the Conservative Party does need to deliver Brexit. There was a democratic event where that’s what people decided to do… Two thirds or thereabouts of people who voted Conservative also voted to leave the European Union. So our voters want us to deliver. The results of the local elections and the European elections both demonstrate that’s what our voters want us to do. It’s clear that under the Prime Minister’s leadership, the Conservative parliamentary party isn’t going to unite around anything, or our DUP allies.”
Harper believes May made the right call in initially seeking to pass her deal on the votes of that parliamentary coalition alone. But that, he argues, was always going to be an impossible job. He accuses May and the Cabinet – whose shared responsibility he is keen to stress – of failing to engage with the “breadth of opinion” within the Tory parliamentary party. “I’m afraid the bit where the Prime Minister went wrong was that engagement didn’t take place at all,” he said. “She therefore brought back a deal which both she and the Cabinet misjudged. They presumably thought they would get it through on our benches, and they made a large misjudgement.”
Nor, he argues, did they really try convincing Brussels to gut withdrawal agreement of the Irish backstop – the only solution to have commanded a parliamentary majority made up of Conservative and DUP MPs thus far. “I think some lip service was paid to it. But I don’t see any evidence that the prime minister and the cabinet seriously engaged with either our European Union negotiating partners, or with the Irish government, or with any of the technical experts.” In doing so, they squandered a “realistic” prospect of passing the deal by 29 March.
As far as Harper is concerned, the solution to the impasse is clear, even if some Tory MPs might find it wholly unpalatable. He puts it starkly: “I’m afraid that there needs to be a new start with a fresh approach, to try and exit the European Union with a deal as a starting proposition, but being prepared to leave without one if that’s what’s required.” He believes the next prime minister should kick off several parallel processes in preparation for either outcome, but not before they “remind people what the point of this exercise is. We keep talking about delivering Brexit, but we keep forgetting to dial back to why people decided to vote to leave the European Union… It’s about taking back control, it’s about giving ourselves more of a chance to shape our future in a whole range of areas. You do have to remind people what the point of this exercise is, and it also reminds you what you’re trying to achieve.”
Next would come a listening exercise within the parliamentary party of the kind convened by Kit Malthouse, another (declared) leadership contender. Harper believes restoring some degree of “discursive process” to the process – including within Cabinet – is essential. “Someone needs to do what the prime minister never did three years ago: actually sitting down with Conservatives from both sides of the argument on Brexit, and actually going through the problem and working out what people can live with. We never actually did that exercise.”
Harper believes that, with a change of approach and personnel, a party that looks terminally fractured would be capable of talking itself into a compromise position. The same is true, he argues, of the frayed bond between London and Dublin. He offers a similar prescription: restoring the relationship between the prime minister and Taoiseach on the basis of mutual understanding. In that context, Harper foresees the presently intractable job of restoring a Stormont executive and securing some form of compromise on the border getting easier. He says he does not want to be unfair to May, but believes it is fair to characterise the government’s failings as failures of personnel first and foremost.
But what if it doesn’t work? Deal or no deal, he believes a further extension to Article 50 might be necessary. “As I said, you can either leave on 31 October or, in the worst worst case scenario, have a short, focussed extension, probably before the end of the year, where you’ve just got some work to do on specific things that may not have been practically able to be done before 31 October – particularly given that there is going to be a new Commission, and I understand that they don’t formally take office until the beginning of November. So there may be some problems in actually getting to a decision.
“That, I think is a realistic strategy. It’s not very easy to boil down into some soundbites. But frankly, anyone who pretends that this process is soundbiteable probably ought to be laughed at, because it isn’t that straightforward.” Boris, take note.
The biggest political consequence of a no-deal Brexit could be a Tory split. But Harper doesn’t agree that breaking party unity for good would be the inevitable price of securing Brexit on those terms. “I think you can keep most people happy, but ironically you keep them happy by not pretending there’s a middle way.”
But he adds: “I think Conservative colleagues would need to be confident that the prime minister had exhausted every other opportunity, and there really was no alternative, and that that really was the alternative, and that absolutely every step had been taken to make sure we were properly prepared, and that it hadn’t been that prime minister’s preferred outcome. In those circumstances, it might still be possible.
“But because I think it’s going to be very difficult, I think it does affect the approach that you adopt, and I think it means you need an approach that’s a bit more thoughtful, and a bit more nuanced. Going in all guns blazing, given those views, I think isn’t likely to be successful.” The inevitable result of that approach, he warns, would be the government’s collapse – and with it a historic defeat for the Conservatives. “My view is that an early general election fought on a no-deal platform when we haven’t been able to govern properly for the last three years isn’t going to end very well for the Conservative Party – or, indeed, in my view, the country.”
Beyond Brexit, what should the Conservative Party of the 2020s exist for? Harper distils his political philosophy to two words: “freedom” and “opportunity”. The son of a labourer and correspondence clerk, he is inspired by his personal experience as the first member of his family to go to university (PPE – what else? – at Brasenose College, Oxford, just like David Cameron) and wants to see more working class Tory MPs, as well as more women.
Once an “ambitious free trade agreement” with the EU and separate international deals on security, intelligence sharing are wrapped up, Harper says the Conservatives’ primary objective should be a simple one: “Governing again.” On current evidence, it might be beyond them. But only then, he says, will the party regain the space to present a clear narrative and policy programme to the public. He sums it up thus: “Freedom to live your life how you want, and maximising opportunities for people. Those are very good watchwords for a Conservative government when it’s thinking about all the other areas of policy that it’s involved in.”
What would that mean in practice? With the government’s spending review due this year, Harper argues that the Tories must restate the case for what he prefers to call “the a-word”: austerity. He would have preferred to have seen the £20bn funding settlement given to the NHS last year spread more widely across Whitehall. And like others pondering the party’s future, he wants to see tax cuts for the lowest paid. “The fact is: we’re still taxing people too much. You don’t help people with the cost of living by putting their taxes up. So some of that growth in revenue needs to keep taxes on a downward path, and my view is that the tax cuts need to be focussed on the people at the bottom – and those that need the help the most.”
A fan of nudge theory, Harper believes in a “nimble” state. He wants to see better funding for schools and post-16 education, investment in social care for the elderly and vulnerable adults, and climate change are all high on his agenda. “For a Conservative, I think the starting point is that you default to letting people have the maximum freedom to shape their own lives…I don’t want to live in a society where we’re trying to regulate everything, and we don’t allow people to make choices. If there are things that are in everyone’s interests, then obviously you shape them with the incentives.” This approach, he says, could help deliver net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
He concedes that winning the argument against Jeremy Corbyn will be difficult, especially on the economy. “One of our real challenges is to show people that we are the party for everybody, wherever you start from, whatever your background,” he admits. But Harper cites the examples of his formative political influences as evidence that it can be done: Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and John Major. He believes the next Conservative leader must share their ability to have “grown-up conversations” both within Parliament and within the public. “Both [Thatcher] and Ronald Reagan thought one of their jobs, both as party leaders and as president and prime minister, was to do teaching. If you look at their speeches, there are bits where they don’t just say: ‘Here are the things my government’s doing today.’ They say: ‘Here’s my worldview, here’s why it’s the right answer.’
His reference to Major is arguably much more telling. “To some extent we’ve got to achieve what he achieved when he succeeded her. He managed to show that the Conservative Party could change and renew itself in office, and I think part of our challenge is that we’ll have been in power 12 years by the time of the next election.”
Answering that question will depend as much on the who as the how and what. The next prime minister could very easily chart the very course Harper would prefer them to avoid: charging full-steam ahead at no-deal and precipitating a general election. Though he won’t be drawn on the question of leadership for now, his desire for a new generation to take the reins once May is gone his clear.
“It is true that the prime minister has to take the bulk of the responsibility for where we are, because she is the leader of the party and the prime minister, and that is how it works. But the brutal truth is that all of the decisions that she’s taken – the good ones, but also all of the misjudgements – they have all been acquiesced in by the current cabinet. But some of the big mistakes were made by people who are no longer in the cabinet.
He does not flinch from criticising the favourite. “For example, on Brexit, the big fail on sequencing and on the issues with the Northern Ireland border were both decisions take while Boris Johnson was still a member of the government. I don’t think he can escape his share of responsibility for that.
“When we get this contest, those members of the cabinet who pop up and pretend it should have all been done differently… I’m afraid that if you want to lead, you need to demonstrate what you did in the cabinet to get the cabinet to make different decisions.”
Harper does not know why he was sacked by Theresa May in 2016 – and, by his own admission, has never complained about it. But is he keen to serve again? “I’d be very happy to look for other opportunities to serve my party, and my constituents,” Harper said. “We’ll see what the future brings.” So indeed we will.