This is a sobering moment for the Conservative Party. It is nearly three years since the EU referendum and Brexit has not been delivered.
The country has just been forced to vote in European elections that were never supposed to happen. And the results show that the oldest party in the world has been hammered by one that didn’t exist just six months ago.
It is no wonder that so many people – including previously loyal Conservative supporters and activists – are fed up. We’ve just had a taste of their frustration, and I have every sympathy with them.
People are upset because they don’t feel that democracy is working properly. They have a point. At the EU referendum in 2016, 17.4 million people put their cross in the box next to Leave; we promised as the governing party to deliver what they asked for; and we haven’t. We simply have to do better, honour the referendum result and deliver for the British people before the next general election.
If we don’t, it is increasingly clear what is going to happen – and this is something I hope every one of my colleagues will think carefully about over the coming weeks. The voters’ anger will continue to grow. Dissatisfaction will lead to outright abandonment.
And if there is, God forbid, a general election before Britain has departed the EU in good order, the scale of a Tory defeat will make Blair’s 1997 landslide look like a picnic. We must not have an election until Brexit is secured.
The consequences for the UK would be dire. For in that awful scenario, the victor would be Jeremy Corbyn, the most extreme left-wing leader in Labour’s history – who would cancel Brexit altogether, with the backing of the SNP, no doubt with the promise of a second independence referendum extracted from this weak Labour leadership. Once again our precious Union would be threatened.
Corbyn would arrive in Downing Street with John McDonnell in tow, and together they would turn the British economy into the biggest Marxist experiment the world has ever seen. We know what that will mean for our shared prosperity and standards of living. It’s a grim but all too imaginable prospect.
Thankfully, there is another, more positive scenario that is within reach – and why, despite the grounds for concern, I cling to a sense of optimism about the future. In the next two months, the Conservatives could choose the right leader – a leader who can unite our party, unite the country, deliver Brexit, and secure the nation’s prosperity. It is absolutely clear to me that in Michael Gove, we have exactly the right person, at exactly the right time, for this vital task.
The first job for the next leader of the Conservative Party – indeed, the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – is to unite our party, and to show our activist base that we hear them loud and clear. Above all, we have to remember that it is our collective duty to deliver Brexit and to prevent Corbyn reaching No 10. Gove has the vision and the energy to lead this effort.
He also has the eye for detail, which in the Brexit process, the most complex peacetime negotiation in British history, matters more than ever. We have seen this in every ministerial role he has held – as Education Secretary, Justice Secretary, and now Environment Secretary. Every department he led felt a firm grip on the tiller and it showed, as each of them became an engine of reform and new ideas. He can master a brief, build a broad team of colleagues, and get things done.
That’s what he will bring to Brexit. And we know that he believes in it too, as a lifelong Eurosceptic who, having seen how the EU destroyed his father’s business, put everything on the line to lead the Leave campaign.
In the past two years, if I am honest, I can think of only one moment where the parliamentary party felt truly united. It was listening to his closing speech in the January no-confidence motion, when he reminded us just how much there is to be proud of in the recent Conservative record. We are the most successful country for foreign investment in Europe, he said; 1.9 million more children are in good or outstanding schools; we have a record level of investment in the NHS; and are meeting the two per cent NATO target for defence spending.
In short, although there is so much more to do, there is also much to build on. On the backbenches, there was a palpable sense of rising morale.
Rightly, in my opinion, Gove has called for a contest of ideas in the Conservative leadership contest. This is exactly what we need and what was lacking in 2016. We should remember: for all their countless faults, Corbyn and McDonnell have ideas for the UK’s future – they just happen to be the wrong ones. For the good of this great country, the Conservative Party needs a leader who is ready to unite the party, ready to deliver a better Brexit deal and ready to lead us out of the European Union.