Nick de Bois is the MP Enfield North. Follow him on Twitter.
I don’t make a habit of saying this often, but I completely agree with Tom Baldwin, Ed Miliband’s Chief Spin Doctor, that this Government should be described primarily as ‘Tory-led’. Whether in the press, on the news or around the blogosphere people should be constantly reminded that the driving force behind Government policy is Conservative, and although the Liberal Democrats have a proportional policy voice they are primarily serving to provide the parliamentary numeracy to drive forward Government programmes.
This Government, across the policy areas of the economy, welfare state public services, and international development has a Conservative conscience, drive and ambition and I am beginning to become frustrated that this is not the message being delivered. Too often the Conservatives are the ‘bad guys’ trying to damage the economy or suppress the poor, and our partners are the angels on Cameron’s shoulder, preventing him from going too far. This unhelpful presentation is misrepresentative and politically toxic, and the Government has to nip it in the bud before the damage it does becomes irreversible.
On the economy, the perception seems to be that the “same old” Tories are seeking to impose tax and spending cuts and the ‘nice Lib Dems’ are ensuring that all the cuts are minimized and that bankers pay their fair share. Take a closer look at this distinction, and you find it is completely false. The Conservative manifesto proposed a unilateral levy on banks and removing tax credits to those earning over £50,000, showing we can realise all by ourselves that those with the broadest shoulders need to carry the heaviest burden. However, we also realised that everyone in society needs to tighten their belts, and we therefore made tough but fair promises on pensions and public sector pay. These are not popular, as recent strikes show, but you can’t simply reduce Britain’s record borrowing by overly taxing a significant minority in society. Yet even here the Conservatives have ensured lower public sector workers are protected from the more difficult cuts, on pensions for example if you earn less than £15,000 you will be spared any increase, and those earning less than £18,000 will have their contributions capped at 1.5 percentage points.
Before becoming our partners the Lib Dems take on the economy, on the other hand, was that all could be solved if we simply introduced a ‘Mansion Tax’ , (a theme that they have returned to recently), and increased taxation on aviation. Their manifesto stated ‘If spending is cut too soon, it would undermine the much-needed recovery and cost jobs’, a line that could easily slip from Ed Balls on any news outlet at present.
My point here isn’t that they were wrong and we were right, nor that their agreement to form the coalition hasn’t substantially helped Britain get on the right track. My argument is that clearly on the economy the approach we have taken to reduce the deficit and restore confidence in Britain is a Conservative one of responsibility and accountability, and not one of taxing the wealth-creators in our society for the previous Government’s fiscal mistakes.
This is a point true of welfare reform. The Conservative approach, masterminded by Iain Duncan Smith for years in opposition, was focusing on the long term causes of unemployment like family breakdown and structural barriers in the benefits system and dealing with them through early intervention and the introduction of the universal credit. This approach did involve reducing benefits, not because we are ‘bad people’ but because we recognise that the old system trapped individuals in cycles of poverty and dependency through a lack of incentives. Pre 2010 however, our partners disagreed on this fundamental analysis and not one of their policy pledges related to benefits, even though 72% of the public thinks that ‘politicians need to do more to reduce the amount of money paid out in benefits’. Again, in this policy area, the Conservative Party are leading the way and tackling the issue head on. So why is it that last month Nick Clegg was chosen to announce a scheme to support young people getting back into work and not one of the excellent Conservatives in the Department for Work and Pensions?
Finally this is true in my personal area of interest, public service reform, particularly the NHS. Here is an area where the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats agreed. As has been set out numerous times, and I need not labour the point, proposals for the NHS to introduce more choice, diverse provision and genuine accountability were a uniting factor in both manifesto’s. Yet when push came to shove, and these policy wonk visions became legislative reality, some senior Lib Dems balked, and along with their party members changed course. So it is left to the Conservatives, armed with the conviction that the NHS needs urgent reform, to continue this agenda as well. And somewhere along the way it is conveniently forgotten by critical LIb Dems that it was the Conservatives who promised year on year increase in NHS spending.
I will repeat that this is not to say that the Lib Dems are not supportive and helpful allies, or that they did not make a brave and noble decision in joining the coalition. Far from it, but we should be clear that the substance of Government policy is Tory-led in most areas, and where it is most Conservative it is most effective. They should not allow our partners to be characterised as some kind of progressive influence on a reactionary Prime Minister, because this does his bold vision for Britain a disservice. In 2015, when the country hopefully realises the benefits of sustainable finances and effective public service reforms, we should be able to hold our heads high at the benefits of a Conservative agenda, and not be left defending only the Coalition’s negatives.