This article was written for, and is available to read on The Guardian
The Johnsonian era is over. Whatever his faults, Boris Johnson broke the Brexit deadlock, stopped a hard-left Labour party from gaining power and navigated our country through one of its most difficult times in living memory.
But the world of 2022 is very different from the world of 2019 – and the new leader of the Conservative party has to reflect this.
When I was elected MP for Carlisle in 2010, the first time a Conservative MP had been elected in the city for more than 50 years, the UK was still suffering from one the worst recessions in its history. The British public tentatively gave the Conservatives a chance on a pragmatic level to deal with the economic mess left behind.
Now, after 12 years in government, whoever the new prime minister is needs to rebuild that trust once more – as well as bring in a fresh, energetic and attractive new agenda.
Obviously, personality will matter in any such contest – it always does. But it is real, authentic leadership that should be paramount. We need someone who is a true leader, unmarred by recent events. We need someone new, with a bright outlook and a different offer.
Our new leader must have integrity, decency, patriotism and a clear sense of direction. They will need to be someone who can unite all wings of the party and ensure that any government is made up of MPs based on ability, not familiarity. They must avoid one faction or the other dominating the executive by having a cabinet and government of all talents. This takes a strength of will.
However, personality alone, as we have discovered, is not enough. There must be a clear policy agenda, a sense of purpose and a distinct direction. This means moving away from the recent policies of high spending, high borrowing and high taxation and returning to a more fiscally conservative approach to allow the country to free itself from the current economic quagmire.
But more than this, there is one policy area that the new leader must return to and pursue with vigour – and that is the levelling up agenda. Indeed, they need to turbocharge it. Levelling up is not just about the north. It is about improving people’s lives overall and closing the economic and productivity gap that is so wide in many parts of our country.
It is not necessarily about spending eye-watering sums of money, but it does mean a full-on commitment to this agenda. We made this offer at the last election and we still need to deliver it. Many new Conservative voters were attracted by this policy. They felt like they had been neglected by Labour for years – and it would be a betrayal if that feeling of neglect continued under a new government.
Such a change means a real devolution of powers, an increase in infrastructure spending, improving education and skills – but, most importantly of all, creating the right environment for private sector investment and employment in these communities. This will mean a fundamental change in the way the Treasury works, and it must be the focus of the new prime minister’s government. One important early move towards this will be a commitment to bringing in a dedicated minister for levelling up and a minister for the north.
Whatever you may think of him, following an act like Boris is no easy job. But the way for any new leader to do it is through focus, a clear agenda and a real sense of purpose. This, more than any ideological or personal reason, is what we should be looking for – because the next leader of the party isn’t just going to be leader of the Conservatives, they are also going to be the next prime minister, and our country deserves nothing less.