Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the BIS Select Committee, the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Stratford on Avon.
The best thing about going to conference is the sense you get of the Conservatives as one big family: from party veterans who can remember Churchill to Conservative Future students who’ve taken time out from Fresher’s Week to be there. As many in the media have noted, the mood this year was particularly upbeat. There were many factors at play. Party membership is up, Labour has failed to show that they are a government in waiting and UKIP are a source of unity rather than division.
But for me what made this conference was a new confidence in the story we have to tell the British people.
As a former pollster, I have always argued that it’s not enough to just show that you’re competent and that you can be trusted with the economy. Voters also have to know that you have the right values – that you’re on their side. As we saw from last week’s YouGov poll, this is now starting to get through, for three reasons.
First, we’ve begun to show that we’re not just the party of tough decisions. It was vital to deal with Labour’s mistakes, but that’s not the only reason we came into politics. In his speech the Prime Minister’s core argument was that people want to live in a country where effort is rewarded, where if you work hard and do the right thing you’ll get something back. Our long-term economic plan isn’t just about deficit reduction – it’s about putting that idea into action.
Policies such as scrapping the 55 per cent tax on inherited pensions, getting more young first-time buyers onto the housing ladder and delivering three million more apprenticeships all send home the message that we believe in something for something at every stage of life, that if you save up for a deposit, save for your pension or choose learning over welfare, a Conservative government will back you.
At the same time, we’ve shown that something for something also applies to government policy: that you can’t have tax cuts without controlling spending, and that you can’t protect the NHS without a strong economy.
My second reason for optimism is that we’re now taking the fight to the left on what they (wrongly) regard as their own territory. We’ve committed to achieving full employment, clamping down on multinational tax avoidance and we’re backing a higher minimum wage. This isn’t about compromising our principles like New Labour. Instead, we’re arguing there’s no contradiction between being a progressive party and a party of free enterprise.
We say you get full employment not by expanding the public sector, but by making it easier for firms to hire and strengthening the incentives to work. Welfare reform, deregulation and the minimum wage are complimentary tools. We say we’re in favour of flexible labour markets and opposed to abuse of zero hours contracts – because in a free market employees need flexibility, too. As the Chancellor said in his speech, we believe in competitive taxes, but that in return the biggest firms need to pay their fair share. Again, it’s not left-wing populism but that core Tory principle of something for something.
Above all, we’re fighting back against the ‘privileged few’ charge by reaffirming our support for the NHS, with commitments to protect health spending and deliver seven day GP access. The lies that Labour and the SNP told about our party and the NHS nearly cost us the Union: it is vital that we take them on, and take them on we did. No-one who sat in that hall and heard why the Prime Minister is so personally committed to the NHS could be unmoved. I was deeply proud when the Conservative Party rose to its feet to applaud our health service.
The key word is ‘our’. As Jeremy Hunt said in his conference address, it’s not Labour’s health service but a National Health Service. It belongs to the whole country, and is not the personal fiefdom of one political party. Making that argument doesn’t mean giving up on reform. To paraphrase David Cameron, when it comes to public services, we are the trade union for the users of those services.
Third, we now have a clear doorstep offer to the public: vote Conservative and we’ll cut your taxes. This isn’t a gift from the Government – you’ve earned it not us, so you should have a chance to keep more of it. We’re in a position to make that pitch because we’ve earned our economic credibility over the last four years.
At the next election, voters will have a straight choice between the Prime Minister who’s delivered the fastest growth of any major advanced economy and the guy who forgot to mention the deficit. Labour are behaving like a badly run business. They have no strategic direction, their policies are based on short-term opportunism and they do not amount to a vision of where they want the country to be in five years time. By contrast, Conservative morale is strong because we know our plans are anchored in a long-term economic strategy, one which accepts that there can no wealth without work, no reward without sacrifice.
Now is an exciting time to be a Tory. We have the man, the message and the record to back it up. Our party is in fighting form because we know we’re ready for the battle ahead.