Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
The coming victory is an opportunity to reshape Britain not just the electoral map.
The Left used to romanticise the working class, but be sceptical about the European Commission. Now it romanticises the European Commission, but is sceptical about the working class. This has created a huge electoral opportunity that the Prime Minister is taking full advantage of with this election campaign.
I wrote two weeks ago on this site that to win a big victory that suited her particular brand of politics, she should focus on Labour and UKIP voters attracted to her focus on the national interest and ordinary people, even if this meant no gain in Liberal Democrat voters. Her strategy is clearly just this – to go big and reshape the electoral map of Britain.
Theresa May’s premiership rides on harnessing creative tension within the Tory movement
Yet whether she is able to move from a fundamentally successful election strategy to a transformative government is not yet clear. Much rides on whether she can create and harness creative tension within the conservative movement and beyond.
To win over this group of Labour and UKIP voters, May is moving to the left on economic politics. An absolute cap on energy prices. More rights for workers. Scrapping the tax lock. Individually, each policy might win short term plaudits, but the message being rammed home is that only more and bigger government can solve people’s problems.
Against this, some parts of the Right often seems trapped in what our editor termed a Thatcherite tribute act. Cut taxes for the most affluent, and watch Britain grow. Britain will be fine if we just push through more cuts to corporation tax (when a rate that was 48 per cent in 1979 is now going to be just 17 per cent) and more cuts to capital gains (when the top rate is 28 per cent compared to 45 per cent income tax and ignores nominal gains).
It is entirely possible that, after the victory on June 8, this will become a fundamentally unhealthy dynamic, pitching much of the Conservative coalition against May, particularly as Brexit is completed. But a much more positive scenario could unfold.
Both the machinery of Government and capital markets are fundamentally broken
Effectively, the Right is correct that Government is too large, but so is the May criticism it does not do enough. The state is both bloated and too ineffectual. To try to tackle this through creating yet more state activism rather than reform will rarely solve our underlying issues.
To take an example: May is right that mediocre executives are being overpaid. Yet much of this is down to the cheap credit that low interest creates and means that asset prices rise – including share prices. With the FTSE 250 standing at over 19,000 compared to 12,000 just before the financial crash, this over 60 per cent rise is double inflation and wages, and means that mediocre executives on share options and bonuses can pay themselves more while workers struggle and pensions are decimated. This cheap money is what keeps the Government afloat – a symbiotic relationship between bloated government and corporate mismanagement.
Meanwhile, government is barely able to get to grips with the systems that it controls. It is ironic that the more politicians invoke the state with micro ‘retail’ policies, the less they actually grasp the enormous systems that they preside over. Officials in the centre churn too quickly, are not accountable in any real sense, and have terrible incentives to build empires rather than solve problems. Ministers face similarly awful incentives. That anything positive gets done is despite, not because, of the systems in place, and the fact that some people actually want to improve the system.
The more complex and important the issue, often the harder it gets. To get 250,000 homes requires more land, streamlining planning rules, changing the relevant bureaucracies, diversification of those providing homes, better translation of permissions to homes, greater focus on voter concerns around infrastructure and design and much more. And this is before we consider a downturn. It was only this February that the system actually started to focus on the core point – ensuring each council met its target for housing delivery – despite this being trailed 18 months earlier.
The Conservative Party needs a genuine common ground not centre ground pitch
Tomorrow’s Conservative Manifesto is likely to be a vision document that sets out a direction of travel for the Party to become the genuine party of the workers, with only a limited number of policies to signal what this means.
The Tory coalition needs to try to coalesce around an agenda that tackles the issues ordinary people are concerned about – jobs, homes, savings. If May tries to simply tackle people’s unhappiness through a few populist edicts and diktats, she will fail. And if the Right simply argues a few tax cuts for the richest will solve our issues, their alternative will not be any better.
The Conservatives should not be interested in the top two or three per cent in this country. They should generally get out of their way and let them get on with generating wealth – and focus on policies that help ordinary people become more self-reliant.
I remember trying to generate interest in social housing allocation in Government – the system that determines who gets a social home and who doesn’t (a system that covers more than one in six households), but people couldn’t see why it mattered that this system punished those who went out to work and tried to help themselves – trapping them into dependency.
What the Conservative Manifesto should be judged against tomorrow is how far it sets out a vision for a genuine synthesis rather than a pale centre ground where the party simply combines Miliband-era policies, a milder version of austerity, and Brexit.
May has every right to demand our obedience – not just until June 9th, but after as she sets out to transform Britain. But this must not be blind. Last November, I argued that May needed a spring election for three reasons – to insulate herself from a downturn/higher inflation, obtain a successful Brexit, and, crucially to gain a mandate and self-confidence to preside over a debate within the Conservative Party as she reshapes politics. Tomorrow’s manifesto will be the first chance to see if her vision can generate the best from our party or the worst.