George Osborne

How the Tories lost their way

Getty Images

Do you pack up the flat or not? That’s the question that everyone who lives in Downing Street faces as an election approaches. In 1997 my job was to brief John Major each morning on the newspapers. We’d pick up the first editions from Charing Cross at midnight and young researchers would beaver away in the early hours working out how to respond. At 6 a.m. I’d then go to the flat above No. 10 and brief the bleary-eyed premier. I remember the chintzy sofas, the family photos and the awkward moments: ‘Prime Minister, your sister has told the Sun newspaper you can’t win.’ The day before polling, I crept into the flat and was confronted by stacks of boxes. The Majors had packed up. The Blairs didn’t with their elections; nor did the Camerons. I wonder what the Sunaks will do?

Was there any part of David that thought: ‘I’m back in the big boys’ club’ when he was photographed with Presidents Macron and Biden and Chancellor Scholz on Omaha Beach? He’s too professional to tell even his closest friends. D-Day did not happen in the distant past. I remember a dinner conversation I had with the former senator John Kerry. His mother owned a house in Brittany before the war; a few years after it ended, the family visited to see what was left of it. They drove through Normandy on their way there. Kerry remembered the beaches still strewn with the junk of war: burnt-out tanks, barbed wire and destroyed pillboxes. Maybe Rishi Sunak would have got away with skipping some of the ceremonies if he’d been way ahead in the polls; but way behind, and with the Tory party still angry about the early election, every error is pounced on and this was a huge, unforced one. Politics is a very lonely place when things are going wrong for you.

Nineteen years after I briefed Major on the sofa I myself moved out of the same Downing Street flat. I didn’t have time to pack, or even to find somewhere to spend the night. So, as the 45-year-old ex-chancellor, I called my mum and asked if I could use the spare room. When I arrived at the house in Notting Hill, it was crawling with armed police. Gosh, I thought, that’s unnecessary. It turned out they were there for David, who was staying at a friend’s house in the same street. We were back where we’d started all those years earlier, sitting round each other’s kitchen tables working out how to put a shattered Tory party back on a path to government.

That job will probably now fall to a new generation of Conservatives. They will be helped enormously if the party isn’t almost bankrupt, as it was in 1997 and again in 2005. It’s in the darkest days of opposition that you need the resources to fund policy-making and research and to pay for good people. Holding back just a fraction of the tens of millions of pounds being spent right now on Facebook and TikTok ads would make a huge difference after defeat. The instruction from No. 10 will be to spend every penny now. That’s where a sensible man called Stephen Massey needs to step in. He’s the chief executive of the Conservative party and he runs a tight ship. I hope he’s saying no to those who want to blow everything, or if not, then he’s squirrelling some money away for a rainy day.

Terrible weather did its best to ruin Bruton’s Packhorse Fair the other day, near where we live in Somerset – but failed. Congratulations to the organisers who have revived this old family festival. There was everything you’d expect at a big country fête: jam stalls, a beer tent, fairground rides… and a brilliant band of Sikh drummers who made the crowd forget they were being drenched. There was the obligatory tombola, but this wasn’t raising money for the local church. Here in the heart of Middle England, the cause was the casualties of the Gaza war. The Hay literary festival is another straw in the wind. It dropped its sponsor Baillie Gifford because of tenuous claims about investments in Israel, after pressure from some obscure writers and left Labour figures like Dawn Butler and Shami Chakrabarti.

Tory woes mean next to no attention is being given to what a Labour government will face. My prediction: an imminent challenge to Keir Starmer and David Lammy from their activists and MPs for a ban on arms sales to Israel and immediate recognition of a Palestinian state. The 2001 election that first put me into the Commons was a Labour coronation and a general kick-the-Tories fest. The parliament that followed was dominated by events in the Middle East.

Successful government is about knowing what your priorities are. The Tories started to lose their way some years ago when they said the economy no longer mattered most, jacked up corporate tax and told business to f— off. Now Rachel Reeves says it’s all about growth; but when it comes to specifics Labour’s manifesto talks about workers’ rights. Why do we in Britain want to beat up on the things we’re good at? World’s best universities? Stop the students from the world coming here. The world’s best schools? Slap on VAT. North Sea oil? Another windfall tax. Best place after America for big tech? Send in the competition authority. European capital of venture capital? Jack up the taxes. Green energy capital? Abandon the targets and create a nationalised company. Premier league? Set up a regulator and make sure we can’t buy premier players. I’ve got a radical new policy for any party serious about our future. Let’s start by not screwing Britain’s winners.

I was the first Conservative to visit the opposition offices in the Commons after almost two decades in government. There was no memory of what to do – how to appoint a shadow cabinet, how to table amendments in the Commons. On his last day as Tory leader, Major sat me down at the shadow cabinet table for a talk. I was a 26-year-old researcher; he had been prime minister for seven years. He said to me: we will never win while we remain in thrall to the hard right of our party. It took us eight years before we started listening to that advice. How long will it take us this time?