The 2017 general election was called to strengthen the prime minister’s negotiating authority with our continental allies and friends in the discussions on Brexit. This, all sides agreed, was the Brexit Election. We would spend seven – more – weeks talking about “when, not if”, “it’s a process not an event”, “they need us more than we need them”, Remainers, Remoaners, and who is the most bloody difficult person of them all. Seven weeks when we could all, yet again, rehearse and rehash the pro- and anti- EU arguments that have in one way or another dominated British politics for most of my lifetime.
At least that is what the political class had determined and generally gave their assent to when MPs came together to agree the prime minister’s request for a dissolution of Parliament. It was all very comfortable and neat. It suited all sides very well, and more or less everyone in Westminster went off to their constituencies in a very jolly mood. But events, as Harold Macmillan famously noted, have a habit of upending the best laid plans.
Even before the appalling events in Manchester this week, voters were showing every sign of being bored by an election about Brexit. Britain has voted and made up its mind about that. All the evidence suggests Britain has also made up its mind about who is best placed to deliver Brexit. This was an election where voters were politely watching the political parties do their stuff, but frankly what they were doing was not really impinging a great deal on the more pressing business of their day-to-day lives. Partly as a result of this, boredom the Conservative manifesto launch gathered more attention than perhaps it deserved, and a certain level of turbulence has ensued, the impact of which will only become fully apparent over time. However, what is clear is that the events in Manchester have completely recast the 2017 general election and will overshadow the coming Parliament.
The rest of this campaign, spoken or unspoken, will be about who is best placed to keep the homeland safe. This is the first duty of government, to protect its citizens, regardless of cost and sensitive to the need to strike the fine balance between security and freedom, safety and liberty, privacy and public accountability. This debate goes to the heart of what sort of society we are, and what sort of society do we aspire to be: shared values, a shared purpose and not a nation of fragmented communities and divided cultures.
This general election is now about values and vision. It is more, much more than simply about who is the best negotiator. As a nation we need to raise our heads and stop being so consumed with our relationship with Europe. This will be dealt with. We have allowed ourselves and our politics to become, for far too long, absorbed in the European issue, at the expense of proper consideration of other issues.
The task before us now is of a far greater importance than simply negotiating a trade deal. It is about how we re-energise and re-fashion our shared British values, drawing on our history and tradition, to recast and pull together a society in which we are all involved, but too many feel they have no share in. A vision of a newly confident Britain, proud of its history and strong in its sense of purpose and value – that is what the rest of the 2017 general election campaign should be about.