Nick Faith is the Co-Founder of the Westminster Policy Institute
US election maestro Jim Messina is reported to have told Conservative MPs last weekend that they have 104 minutes to win the general election. The man who masterminded Obama’s re-election campaign told the assembled guests that the average person spends four minutes a week thinking about politics. Given that there are 26 weeks to go until the nation goes to the polls, his main message was the party has under two hours worth of time to persuade the electorate to return the Conservatives to government.
This message should be interpreted as a not so subtle hint to the party. If you have 104 minutes to convince a wavering voter that you are best placed to improve the country’s finances and increase that person’s living standards, then the focus has to be on one thing and one thing only – money. “It’s the economy, stupid”, as James Carville, Bill Clinton’s former advisor, put it in 1992.
The Chancellor gets this. A quick glance at Osborne’s Twitter feed will show you his team have used a total of two hashtags over the past few months – #longtermeconomicplan and #northernpowerhouse. With his crack team (Rupert Harrison, Neil O’Brien, Ramesh Chhabra, Eleanor Wolfson and Thea Rogers) the Chancellor has relentlessly focused on getting the public finances back on track while offering relatively few but nonetheless eye catching policies such as allowing pensioners more flexibility to access their savings.
The lobby gently rib Osborne for his new fashion choice of high vis jackets and hard hats, but the fact they are talking about his love of building sites means his team have succeeded in getting the message across.
The Chancellor has also taken up the mantle when it comes to “rebalancing the economy”, a phrase that politicians love to spout without a clear understanding of what they really mean. Osborne has not, as some including the Business Secretary (!) have suggested, criticised the success of London or implied that we look to reduce our (world leading) position in financial services. Instead, he has focused on the need to create the right conditions to grow our northern economies. Recent announcements to create a high speed rail link connecting Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Hull along with a huge devolution of powers (including policing, transport and housing) to a directly elected Mayor of Greater Manchester have caught the eye.
Infrastructure investment including better rail and rail links and increased aviation capacity alongside locally accountable and directly elected Mayors is absolutely vital if other parts of the country are going to succeed in what the Prime Minister terms “the global race”. Without good infrastructure links, housing that is affordable and good local schools, colleges and universities then towns and cities around the UK will not be able to attract the investment they need to thrive.
The only way to create opportunity and security for people living up and down the country – many of whom still are not feeling the benefits of economic recovery – is to make their nearby town and city centres as attractive to business as possible. And if that’s not possible, then to make it as easy and as cheap as possible to commute to somewhere that is. Without business there can be no jobs, training and ultimately higher wages.
Admittedly it is a lot more difficult for No 10 to focus its entire attention on the economy. There are a million and one things coming at them day in day out. Having to respond to defections to UKIP, a £2bn bill from Brussels, European arrest warrants as well as major international issues understandably take up huge amounts of time, effort and resource.
But as Jim Messina rightly highlighted, time is short and the electorate have their lives to lead. Only a relentless focus on the economy from all government departments and all Ministers – including those at the very top – will give the Conservatives the best chance of winning the largest number of seats at the election.
By the end of the week, the Tories will have 100 minutes to win over the electorate. Tick tock, tick tock…