A Question of Trust: The Most Important issue in this election is not Brexit

On the morning of 31 October this year, my first child was born in my sitting room. Throughout the pregnancy, we had been wondering whether her birth might coincide with Brexit Day – in the event, we were spared the coincidence not by biology but high politics.

High politics, certainly.

But politics which has been some of the most brutal that anyone can remember.

Much has been made of the number of people standing down from Parliament at this election; I’m not sure that the level of turnover is itself particularly remarkable. However, it is certainly true that many who are standing down this time are citing the conditions they have had to endure – and deciding that enough is enough.

Long hours away from the family is, unfortunately, part of a political career – much more so during a hung Parliament. More could and undoubtedly should be done to address this.

But what has not historically been part of our political life is the level of vitriol now directed at Parliamentarians by those outside Parliament. Nor has, until recently, the intolerance of dissent that we are seeing in both main parties, aimed at those who disagree with the leadership.

On the Labour side, long-standing party men like Ian Austin and John Mann have fallen out with the leadership and decided their future is best outside of the party to which they have devoted their lives. Other long-serving Labour MPs such as Margaret Hodge have had to fight off attempts to deselect them by activists loyal to Corbyn.

On the Government benches Tories with huge experience of Government such as Philip Hammond and David Gauke have been told their services are no longer wanted.

I should declare an interest. I worked for David Gauke as an official in the Treasury, and then had the huge privilege to be his Special Adviser in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Justice.

He is a dedicated, talented and a very human public servant who, having sat in Theresa May’s Cabinet, was so concerned by the implications of no deal that he voted for legislation forcing the Government to request an extension to article 50 in the full knowledge it would likely end his career.

Many others who felt similarly as him were not nearly as bold.

On a personal level, David’s removal from the Conservative candidates list distresses me. I also feel that a party which so easily dispenses with the services of those such as David, Amber Rudd, Philip Hammond and others is storing up trouble for itself.

From an electoral point of view, I think taking a disproportionately draconian approach to rebels most of whom are from the liberal wing of the party risks alienating voters in more remain and liberal seats. Many of these are to be found in and around London in well-heeled constituencies upon which the Tories have relied to keep them in power.

Clumsy handling I suspect has made the Conservative electoral challenge harder.

Nevertheless, there is a rationale to the Tories’ approach on these things which is missing from the Labour side. The Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and most other parties are putting Brexit – and their attitude to it – front and centre.

Boris Johnson’s approach is to consolidate the leave vote by promising to “Get Brexit Done” (instead of relying on the gratitude of Brexit voters after the event). The PM is offering domestic policy too – but largely as ballast to the central call to deliver on the referendum result.

In this context, the PM’s team has calculated that pushing a People versus Parliament agenda will play well for them – with the Conservatives aiming to pick up leave voters in Labour heartlands.

The Tory rebels who are banned from restanding are therefore poster children for Parliamentary obstruction, and those who are put off the Conservatives as a result will supposedly be compensated for by more leave voters joining them.

Labour, by contrast, have decided to focus their efforts largely on public services and domestic policy – attacking austerity and painting the Conservatives as ideological cutters and privatisersFramed in this light, attempts to remove long-standing and popular MPs look much more about crude internal politics than any wider public interest.

This matters because at the heart of this election is a question of trust.

For both sides, it is vital that voters believe that they can and will deliver on what they are promising. Actions that undermine that trust undermine the appeal of the message. On the day that could have been (no deal) Brexit Day but for the actions of people like David Gauke, I overnight became much more interested in good public services.

Labour have put funding for public services at the heart of their campaign. Millions of people are far more likely to vote for them if they believe their promises of extra funding are realistic and deliverable. The Labour leadership are therefore asking people to trust them as stewards of the public services and public finances.

In attacking Labour as profligates who will bankrupt the UK by spending £1.2 trillion extra over a Parliament, the Conservatives are betting that the majority of people will decide they cannot.

First published in our weekly Political Capital newsletter