Congratulations to Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, who has been named as the new Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.
This appointment is very good news for both of them.
While Mr Halfon’s job is unpaid and notionally rather junior it puts him in a position of great influence. Not that he has been exactly without influence on the Chancellor hitherto. Both in championing a cut in fuel duty and a cut in bingo tax.
Rather sportingly the Chancellor has openly acknowledged the relevance of Mr Halfon’s campaigning zeal. In last year’s Budget speech, Mr Osborne said:
“We inherited a fuel duty escalator from the previous Government that would have seen above-inflation increases in every year of this Parliament. We abolished the escalator and we have now frozen fuel duty for two years. This has not been easy. The Government have forgone £6 billion in revenues to date, but oil prices have risen again, family budgets are squeezed, and I hear those who want me to do more to help them get by. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) has again spoken up for his hard-working constituents.
“He has been joined by many other hon. Friends, like the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid). We have all listened to the people we represent. Today I am cancelling this September’s fuel duty increase altogether. Petrol will now be 13p per litre cheaper than if we had not acted over these last two years to freeze fuel duty. For a Vauxhall Astra or a Ford Focus, that is £7 less every time you fill up.”
Then in this year’s Budget speech the Chancellor declared:
“While the number of betting machines have grown, the number of bingo halls has plummeted by three quarters over the last 30 years, yet bingo duty has been set at the high rate of 20%. Now that fuel duty is frozen, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) has turned his energy and talent into a vigorous campaign to cut bingo duty, ably assisted by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). They want the rate cut to 15%. I can go further. Bingo duty will be halved to 10% to protect jobs and to protect communities.”
Now instead of openly campaigning – notably via the pages of The Sun – Mr Halfon will be making his representations privately. Given the stage in the electoral cycle this is probably sensible. The messages CCHQ will wish to stress are of what the Government has achieved and the threat from Labour – rather than vigorous message that the Government has failed to do enough over X or Y.
The appointment also makes sense in terms of the traditional role of the PPS to keep the Minister informed of the views of Parliamentary colleagues. Mr Halfon is popular with colleagues across the Party – as evidenced by his election to the 1922 Committee.
In wider political terms, Mr Halfon is the exemplar of that section of the electorate described by market researchers as the C2s – or by journalists over the years as “Essex Man” or “White Van Man.” Mr Osborne is familiar with the importance of connecting with this group – and the potential for Conservatives to do so with issues such as welfare reform and lower taxation.
It is not usually the job of a PPS to help with speech writing or prep for TV interviews. But I hope that Mr Halfon may have some impact with the message that is put across. He spoke very effectively at this year’s Conservative Home conference. One of his points is that Labour has a moral mission – helping the underdog. They might fail disastrously in terms of delivery. But their purpose is well understood. What is the Conservative moral mission that is explicable on the doorstep to an equivalent extent? Mr Halfon feels that freedom and national self government are not such readily tangible concepts. He suggests aspiration is the key message:
“Every clothes peg needs a washing line. That means having a moral mission which gives a Conservative framework to our policies, and is as powerful as Labour’s main objective to help the underdog.
“If Labour’s mission is about fighting poverty, ours is about aspiration. We are the party of the ladder. If you are poor, Conservatives can provide ladders out of benefits and into work; if you are in work, Conservatives will cut taxes; if you want to own your home, Conservatives will provide a ladder for right to buy, or help to buy, and if you want to choose the best school and hospital to suit you or your family, Conservatism will make sure you have that opportunity.”
Perhaps we will be hearing less from Mr Halfon over the next few months and his outspoken demands for “Little Guy Conservatism.” But we can be assured that he will still be championing the little guy and while dealing with the high ups.