Francis Maude is a former Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, and a former Trade Minister. He served as a Member of Parliament from 1983-1992 and 1997-2015, and is now a member of the House of Lords.
Well, what a mess! As everyone agrees. But no point in lamenting it – better to work out what to do about it.
Let’s be clear about why it went wrong. There were rookie errors in the election. First, a “snap” election should be just that – quick, with minimal time for it to go wrong. My first two elections – 1983 and 1987 – took place, like this one, on the second Thursday in June. They were called after the local elections on the first Thursday in May – so only a little over four weeks before polling day.
Second, don’t allow the Civil Service to impose purdah two weeks before Parliament is dissolved. In 2015, we were at pains to ensure that purdah was not triggered until the moment David Cameron entered Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament – at which point the Civil Service acted with untypical speed and efficiency to implement it.
Third, if you start with a 20 point poll lead, keep it boring. Have the blandest, most generic manifesto that human ingenuity can devise. In 1983, we had the shortest and dullest manifesto imaginable while Labour famously had the longest suicide note in history. If you’re that far ahead there is only downside from inserting exciting radical policy ideas. Especially when they’re ill-thought-out and the ministers who would have to implement them know nothing about them until too late.
Fourth, if one of them craters and you have to change it, make that a virtue. Don’t pretend you haven’t changed it.
These were the tactical errors – and there’s nothing to be done about them except to learn from them. But there were strategic and directional mistakes as well; and we need to understand and correct these pretty quickly.
First, a Conservative Party that doesn’t appear to be passionately in favour of free enterprise and wealth creation lacks credibility and authenticity. With a Labour leadership overtly hostile to capitalism and globalisation, no-one was making the case for open markets and private enterprise. The Chancellor, who is an articulate advocate for the market economy, was seemingly locked in a cupboard for the duration of the campaign; and with no frontline economic spokesman on the airwaves the case went by default. This was an especially severe failure because unprecedented numbers of younger people are – even if they don’t think of themselves in this way – entrepreneurs. The so-called gig economy thrives on people having chosen to work outside the formal structures of conventional employment. A Conservative Party seeking to re-engage successfully with younger people (see more below) needs to be able to connect the way many of them live their lives and make their livings with what Conservatives believe and Labour hates.
Second, what happened to the modern Conservative Party? A few years into our seemingly endless wilderness years in opposition, some of us annoyed many in the party by calling for the party to “modernise”. Modernisation never meant moving to the left – this year’s manifesto was well to the left economically of anything we advocated. It’s often forgotten that when Margaret Thatcher was first elected in 1979 she secured more votes proportionally from voters under 35 than from voters over 35. Then, as now, success depended on us being the party more in tune with how younger people wanted to live their lives. Since 2000 it has been about making us acceptable to large groups who had come to find us unattractive – the socially liberal, younger people, London, the environmentally conscious, women, LGBT and ethnic minorities. That detoxification process got us into government in 2010 and again with a majority in 2015. Now it feels like it’s all to do again. Time for C-Change 2.0?
Third, we need to be clear about austerity. We still have a budget deficit of three per cent, and government debt that has risen to 80 per cent of GDP. This, after five years of uninterrupted growth, is an affront to those of us who still believe in sound money and a smaller state. And it would be grossly irresponsible to abandon the target of moving back into surplus, especially if we wish to salvage some remnants of being a low-tax party. Post-2010 “austerity” had four elements. Necessarily, it involved some tax rises. We should now be aiming in the opposite direction; in the post-Brexit world we need to be unequivocally a jurisdiction where people and companies don’t mind paying tax. We’re a long way from that – indeed the non-dom reforms have driven taxpayers away. The second element of Austerity 1.0 was welfare reform. No, it’s not complete – probably never will be – but now may not be the time…Third was some unavoidable cuts to spending programmes. This sort of scrutiny should never end – governments are notoriously poor at ending failing programmes, even when times are tough.
The fourth element in Austerity 1.0 was an efficiency and digital programme that delivered over £50 billion of savings, overwhelmingly from the overhead running costs of government. We genuinely delivered more for less. We downsized the Civil Service by 21 per cent. We reformed procurement to open it up to UK SMEs, and renegotiated contracts with major suppliers. We exited hundreds of underused properties, delivered successful shared services after years of procrastination, and mounted a vigorous campaign against fraud, error and uncollected debt. Our digital programme, now replicated elsewhere in the world, got the UK ranked top in the world last year for e-government by the UN. Our open data and transparency programme, an essential tool in the reformer’s kit bag, led to a number one ranking for open government by three separate international organisations. And we knew in 2015 that we had only just begun to scratch the surface of potential savings. In December 2014, a document – published by a Conservative Chancellor, a Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary and me – set out how by 2020 we could roughly double those savings.
So instead of the handwringing about how “austerity” has to end, let’s get going with Austerity 2.0. This would be an unremitting determination to deliver the next round of efficiency savings. This requires resolute will from the very top of government, and strong central authority vested in a senior minister who can face down the obstruction and prevarication from the self-interested dinosaur tendency in the mandarinate. Everyone not employed in the public sector – and actually many in it – welcomes these savings, believing that when the government runs out of money it should first look to cut its own costs, just like businesses and families have to.
And Brexit. Hard, soft, clean – these are not useful terms. I took no part in the referendum campaign – I thought both sides massively exaggerated their case, and thought a vote to leave would mean some short-term economic downside through uncertainty, and some medium and long-term upside opportunity. I still think that – and the short term is not over yet. So what sort of Brexit? Yes, of course we should prioritise economic benefit over immigration – if we stuff up the economy no-one will want to come here anyway. Yes, of course we should want to leave the Customs Union; as Trade Minister of the fifth largest economy in the world I found it deeply frustrating that I was not at the “top table” in the WTO.
So why not head for the bracing waters of the Norway, or EEA, option, as an interim holding pattern while we work out the permanent answer? Out of the Customs Union, in the Single Market, the chance – maybe limited – to negotiate restrictions to free movement of people, and no ECJ. It would have the necessary element for the EU27 of being “less good than membership” because we would be required to take whatever Brussels decides by way of market regulation – but in the near-term the current stock of regulation is what we work with already. I have little doubt that this option would be the most attractive and reassuring to investors now scratching their heads when they wonder whether to put their money, their ideas, their enterprise and their talents to work in the UK.
And that’s central to our future success. Unless we continue to make Britain the destination of choice for increasingly mobile talent and capital, we will resume the decline that 40 years ago was arrested and then reversed by Margaret Thatcher. So while of course acknowledging that there is a role for government – did anyone suggest there wasn’t? – can we please once again be the party of low taxes, the smaller state, stronger society, the open economy and enterprise? In the post-Brexit world this will be more important than it ever has been.
Finally: leadership. It’s not for me to speculate on when the transition to a new leadership should take place. My plea is that when it happens we learn the lessons of the past on timetabling. Leadership elections conducted in haste rarely end well. It was insane last summer to have an election where nominations closed a bare six days after a bruising and exhausting referendum campaign. It takes time for the right conversations to take place before candidates and their supporters have to declare their hands. Rushing the nomination deadline allows no opportunity for unexpected and unforeseen candidates to appear and to gather momentum. And we know that our most successful leaders have often proved to be those whose candidature was least expected even months before.