Well the General Election is behind us now and no matter how brave a face one puts on the result (e.g. we increased our share by 2% since 1997) the fact of the matter is we still received our second lowest share of the popular vote since 1880 for our Party after 4 years of Blair’s government which is far from unblemished. Furthermore the total Conservative votes cast at 8.5 million is down to a level not seen since 1929.
Matters are of course not helped by the boundary changes being stacked against us to the tune of needing a 6% lead in the popular vote to win the general election. The honeymoon period with Labour is over but the electorate is yet to fall back in love with us. We have to re-establish the trust of all the people in our party and, in particular, we now have to find ways reconnect with young people on issues which are important to them. The low turn-out might actually have favoured us, as when young people did vote they tended to vote more for Labour than for us.
We need to regroup, reflect and rethink our direction and strategy because the people have spoken and they did not like much what they perceived us to be - even if this perception was in part mistaken. What is also apparent is that what is right for Romford is not right for Romsey and we have to select candidates early who can relate to local and regional issues as well as national ones. We are a great party with a natural ability to regenerate and unite behind the right leader who should have a pragmatic approach to what is needed to take us back into government. I believe we shall do just that over the coming months, without compromising our beliefs in personal freedom, self-reliance and nationhood.
I have to say that I never believed that the Europe issue alone would be enough to swing us the General Election and my time spent in Geneva (the telephone canvassing unit at CCO) and canvassing around London’s marginal seats made it very clear that the British public is broadly and mildly Eurosceptic but not deeply or obsessively so. It is clear too that Europe is a defining issue at Euro-elections and at the proposed Referendum on the single currency and we must develop our policies appropriately to reflect this emphasis. Nevertheless I think in London we do have some reasons to rejoice, as in spite of dire meltdown predictions by the Evening Standard, and perhaps because of the Essex factor we achieved two splendid victories in Romford and Upminster (congratulations to our new MPs Andrew Rossindel and Angela Watkinson) and we managed to hold all our existing Tory seats with swings between 1%-2% in our
favour (congratulations to all our nine re-elected MPs) and I extend a very warm welcome to two new faces, my former Council colleague Mark Field in Westminster and the City of London and Derek Conway in Bexley and Old Sidcup, whom I look forward to working closely with over the coming years. I must also say a word to console all those defeated candidates that it was a privilege to know you at the hustings and I both salute your sterling effort and share your disappointment and wish you all well for your political futures.
London will have to remain on election alert of course as we face Borough elections next year in May 2002, then a break of a year before the GLA elections in May followed closely by our Euro-elections in June 2004. We will have to think closely as a Region how we can help each other in these challenges, avoid burn-out from our activists faced with so many elections and develop some form of Regional structure and identity. Certainly your MEP’s are thinking about the setting-up of a Regional Eurocommittee to raise funds and think about how we will face the challenge of the next national election which will be the Euroelection in 2004 and probably also involve the directly elected 10 members to the House of Lords for London as well as 10 MEPs.
I have not yet spoken much about what I have been up to as your MEP but I will have met and briefed a number of you as I went around 24 London constituencies during the campaign. The Parliament has been busy with the post-Nice agenda and the constitutionalarrangements to be settled by 2004, and this is a key area for the Conservatives to get stuck into the debate which has wide ranging implications for this country’s relations with Europe and the workability of the EU itself. The Parliament is also busy digesting the implications of the Irish “No” result in the referendum, and I have been personally busy with the details behind setting-up a single market in Financial Services (ranging from occupational pensions to insurance brokers) and recently made a plenary speech on the Basic Economic Policy Guidelines. I have been even busier as a whip following the Foreign and Defence Affairs portfolios and the Emergency resolutions. This has resulted in my sponsoring and speaking in June about the brutal Taleban regime in Afghanistan which prohibits the education of women and makes all Hindus (there is a large Hindu community in London) wear a distinctive yellow cloth reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
During May I was also sent as the Conservative representative (in part due to my command of Portuguese and Spanish) to the joint debate with the Latin American Parliament in Chile, where I made speeches in diverse areas such as drug trafficking, globalisation and climate change. Latin America is a continent where there are huge markets for British exporters and one is very conscious of the fact that distances have been shrunk by instant telecommunications, the internet, multinationals and global trade, and that its culture now has a global familiarity.
I have also been using my medical skills when I addressed a large gathering of professionals at the June World Congress of Neurology in London in an attempt to raise the awareness of the European public to Epilepsy (very much a Cinderella condition).One recent event was welcoming a party of activists to Brussels accompanied by the agent from Kensington and Chelsea, Barbara Lord. Theresa, John and I have agreed that in future we will combine our staff and quota resources to have larger visitors groups which will involve people from more than one London constituency but will afford economy of scale over the hiring of coaches and organising of events etc. I call upon London members to register an interest in such a visit (next time will probably be Strasbourg rather than Brussels) so we can plan one for early autumn. We are also recruiting a new MEP regional secretary to replace Alex MacIntosh, who we thank for her hard work in Central Office helping both Roger Pratt and the MEPs with London matters, and one of her tasks will be to organise such trips and help Alexis Elliot (to whom we owe an enormous debt for her help and support) with raising our profile and organising London Euro events.
By the time I write the next newsletter we will have our new leader in place and I am confident the party will choose wisely and rally round our him. I was deeply saddened by William Hague’s departure - who I admire for his tenacity, courage in adversity and sense of humour - but he has done the right thing and the Party will respect him for this. The London MEPs all wish him well and are particularly grateful for his successful leadership during our own election campaign which, alas, was not to be repeated at the General Election.
I have not expressed a preference for a candidate publicly in the leadership campaign as the European whips’ office prefers neutrality. Also, two excellent candidates are London MPs both of whom I work closely with and respect deeply. Moreover, as an MEP, I have no more significant a vote than any other member of the Party, a situation which many MEPs feel is unacceptable and will have to be reviewed after the election. Whoever wins will have a great challenge ahead of them to regain lost ground, reunite the Party, be bold about new policies without compromising core principles and, above all, recapture the imagination and trust of the general public.