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Paul Goodman: “The Tory divide is between serious and unserious”

The Tory peer and former ConservativeHome editor on how his party can recover.

By Rachel Cunliffe

What is to become of the Conservative Party? As voters head to the polls in an election widely forecast to deliver a record defeat for the party, the focus is inevitably shifting to Keir Starmer’s incoming Labour administration. Those remaining in whatever is left of the Tory party will have the job of figuring out what has happened – and how the Conservative movement can regroup and recover. And one of them will be Paul Goodman.

Goodman is no stranger to election highs and lows. He has spent the past two decades as editor of ConservativeHome, the influential news and commentary website for the Tory grassroots. Before that, from 2001 to 2010, he was the Conservative MP for Wycombe. Earlier this year he returned to parliament, elevated to the House of Lords in Rishi Sunak’s final honours list. On the eve of the election, I spoke to him about what has gone wrong for the Tories in recent years, and if there is any chance of recovery.

“When you lose your reputation for economic competence, as the Conservatives did in the 1990s, you get punished for it,” Goodman told me bluntly. The chaos of the short-lived Liz Truss era has damaged the Tory brand to the extent that it will take years for voters to trust them again. The multiple changes of leader – five prime ministers in the last decade – has undermined the party’s reputation for stability, while the gaffes of the campaign (the rain-soaked election launch, Rishi Sunak leaving the D-Day commemoration early, the gambling scandal) have further shredded its credibility.

All this has been pored over extensively during the past six weeks, and will no doubt be discussed further as the post-election autopsy is conducted. But Goodman also cited two other factors in the story of Tory decline that have received less attention: Covid, and wider demographic trends across the western world.

Post-Covid elections – in Italy, the US, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands – have tended to oust incumbent governments. Only Canada, Spain and France have bucked the trend (and the latter is looking precarious). This Covid effect has, Goodman suggested, been compounded by the underlying anxiety around immigration and economic security, which governments of all stripes have struggled to confront.

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“The first driver [of the Conservative defeat], I suspect, is the aftermath of plague. If you have an event like Spanish Flu or Covid, the afterwash is calamitous for governments.” He continued: “There is clearly a crisis in Europe that’s essentially a crisis of demography and living standards and migration and integration. So these two huge factors are having an effect, regardless of the domestic to-and-fro of the last few years.”

That they are not alone in their fate will be of small comfort to the Conservatives when they wake up on Friday with a vastly reduced pool of MPs and an argument raging over how to rebuild.

Much of that debate will take place on the pages of ConservativeHome, where those hoping to succeed Sunak will make their pitch to the party faithful. The website posts regular polls on which senior Tories are most popular, and has also surveyed members on who they would like as future leaders. The most recent, in January, saw Kemi Badenoch topping the list. Interestingly, a small handful of people (18) wrote in to suggest an alternative: Nigel Farage. And, despite being leader of a rival party openly hostile to the Tories, midway through this election campaign ConservativeHome ran a piece by Farage himself, urging the site’s readers to vote Reform.

What to do about Farage and the threat he poses to the Tory party will be the central question in the looming leadership contest. Most of the probable contenders in the mix have sought to distance themselves from him; only Suella Braverman has suggested working with him. But the question of whether some sort of deal or even merger is needed to unite the right remains – and there is no doubt Farage holds sway among a section of the membership: a poll in November 2023 found that seven in ten Tory members would support him being readmitted to the party.

It is interesting, then, that Goodman’s advice to those vying for the leadership is to beware. For a start, he notes, that poll was before Farage’s bombastic return to frontline politics and his aim in this election to actively destroy the Tory party. It was also before the multiple scandals over Reform candidates, a significant proportion of whom have turned out to have extremist and fringe views or even ties to fascism. And Farage’s comments about Putin will, Goodman suggested, have raised alarm too.

“If your first reaction about Putin when you’re asked about him is that he’s a strong leader, rather than that he’s a tyrant, that says something about you. And I think that message has got home to many Conservative MPs – and some party members, and a lot of Tory voters.”

Rather than panicking about Farage and letting him frame the debate, Goodman argued, the Tories need to think long-term. “The first thing you have to do is prove competence, that’s very hard to do in opposition,” he said. “So the revival will begin in local government.”

Indeed, Goodman advised, the party would do well to look in a different direction entirely to Farage: Ben Houchen, who won a third term as Tees Valley mayor in May even as the Tories suffered catastrophic losses across the country. “From the moment Keir Starmer becomes prime minister,” he noted, “Ben Houchen is suddenly the most senior elected Conservative in the country who holds office.” Why? Because unlike the Conservative national party, Houchen and other local leaders “are seen as competent”. Local government leaders are also, he said, “the people, even though these areas are very blue, who are in a position to give advice about how to win, because they have to connect with real voters and win their support.”

Connecting with real voters means looking beyond the passionate but narrow audiences of right-wing media outlets such as the Telegraph and GB News. Goodman has in the past stressed to me the dangers of succumbing to the “right-wing entertainment complex” – i.e. veering rightwards and aiming for what will be popular among GB News views, rather than the country.

“The Conservative Party needs a left wing and a right wing,” he said. “That means taking voters from Reform and taking voters from Labour and taking voters from the Lib Dems. This is very much a long-term project. And what they can’t do is put their eggs in a single media basket.”

How long the recovery will take depends, of course, on the scale of the defeat: 150 MPs is a very different prospect to 50. Some of the polls suggest that the Conservatives may have so few MPs they struggle to be an effective opposition – there is even the possibility they will not be the second-largest party. Normally, a recovery on that scale would be expected to take a decade. But with shifting political trends and a lack of enthusiasm for Labour, despite the seismic majority the party is forecast to win, anything good happen. (Boris Johnson’s “stonking” 80-seat majority of 2019, after all, has disintegrated like a sandcastle.)

For his part, Goodman is not anticipating a miracle resurgence. “I suspect the Conservative problems will only begin to heal when this present generation of leaders, plus Farage, are gone and a new generation emerge,” he admitted. There are no quick fixes – some of the factors that have made the party so unappealing to young voters in particular, such as its failures on housebuilding and homeownership, will be incredibly hard to reverse. (In an aside that is unlikely to go down well with Tory Nimbys in the leafy south-east and shires, Goodman hinted against opposing Keir Starmer’s plans for planning reform: “The temptation for them will be simply to resist Labour trying to build on green land, and that in itself is not an answer.”)

If the party is to return as a force in British politics, it will require hard work and a leader who understands that there are no shortcuts, whatever those appearing on GB News might suggest. The main divide in the party, Goodman said, was no long between left and right – or even Leave and Remain.

“It’s between serious and unserious,” he told me. “Serious is trying to understand what the key issues are and address them, and you can’t do that without thinking very seriously about demography and ageing and migration and social policy.

“What is not serious is just telling people what the want to hear, which is that they can have painless tax cuts now on a very big scale that will not destabilise the markets.” He sighed. “We’ve been there – and have got the T-shirt.”

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