Richard Spring: Michael is marvellous, but we need a new leader now

The Tory frontbencher delivers a boost to the David Davis campaign by calling for the party to choose its leader by acclamation
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The Independent Online

The electorate punishes political parties that appear to be disunited. The Conservative Party paid a bitter price for the rowing and disharmony that characterised the last period of Conservative government. During the recent general election, the Labour Party went to great lengths to shore up Tony Blair by having Gordon Brown at his side - not only because of the Prime Minister's unpopularity, but to project a unity of purpose. We know that Labour supporters liked it.

The electorate punishes political parties that appear to be disunited. The Conservative Party paid a bitter price for the rowing and disharmony that characterised the last period of Conservative government. During the recent general election, the Labour Party went to great lengths to shore up Tony Blair by having Gordon Brown at his side - not only because of the Prime Minister's unpopularity, but to project a unity of purpose. We know that Labour supporters liked it.

The Conservative Party has a unique place in the pantheon of political movements. It is historically the most enduring political force in any democracy. Tories instinctively feel that they are the natural party of government: our active supporters hold this belief really powerfully.

Our party is hugely grateful to Michael Howard, who led our general election campaign with inspiring vigour, and wish he had not announced his resignation so soon. My admiration for Mr Howard is boundless. It is a tribute to him that Labour are already pinching Tory policies because they struck such a chord with the electorate. However, in part because of the very unfavourable political topography of the country, the overall result was depressing, for both MPs and our supporters.

As we look back, it was a manifestation of the good sense of MPs and our membership that Michael was elected by acclamation. A powerful instinct took hold that we did not want to revisit previous divisions and that the party urgently needed to rally around, united behind one individual with considerable political experience, successfully tested in battle, and with support right across the party spectrum in and out of Parliament.

A legacy will be bequeathed to the new leader of a party less introspective about policy than at any time since the early 1990s. That new leader will be able to implement much needed longer-term policy development, and define clearly what the party stands for. Simply put, our supporters desperately want us to succeed. An opportunity is presenting itself with the daily more obvious inability of this Government to deliver on its promises. In my constituency I have been struck, following three successive electoral disappointments, by the really powerful urge to win next time round. I am absolutely convinced our members will rally enthusiastically around any new leader.

I have been struck by the number of my constituents who have cited to me the successful unopposed election of Michael Howard. It gave him a real head start and credibility. They simply do not want a long drawn-out process of individual candidates jockeying for position. Media coverage in the past fortnight will have confirmed their worst fears. Weeks and weeks of this will inevitably lie ahead. Our members ache to see unity in the party.

I hope therefore that our new party leader will be chosen, if possible, by acclamation. It would be good for the party in Westminster and out in the country. I am confident that our members would welcome this. That same instinct which so benefited Michael Howard would powerfully and constructively assert itself.

My hope is that the party will move to this, and that a process will be found to make it happen before Parliament is dissolved at the end of July.

During the short Whitsun recess, Members of Parliament will have been able to reflect on all of this. Already there is a commitment to separating the leadership process from overall party structural reform. Colleagues will have had the opportunity to discuss these and related issues with their constituency chairmen and supporters, as part of the debate we are having.

At our party conference in October, I cannot think of anything more negative and distracting than a parade of candidates setting out their stalls, embellished by the reporting of their views, real or imaginary. Instead a new leader should be able to set out his vision and plans for the future.

Michael Howard would depart with the deservedly massive approbation of the party. This party conference must be the initial launchpad for the general election victory that has eluded us, and which we all so passionately yearn for.

Richard Spring is MP for West Suffolk and shadow Paymaster General

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