I suspect that David Cameron, George Osborne, Jo Johnson (the head of the Downing Street Policy Unit) and a bright spark from the Chancellor’s office, possibly Rupert Harrison or Neil O’Brien, will between them write the next Conservative manifesto. Tory election programmes have always been drawn up by a very small of politically motivated men, and that this will be so again is scarcely surprising or shocking. However, this doesn’t mean that Conservative MPs will have no say in the policy-making process at all.
The five Chairmen of the five policy committees of the 1922 Committee – John Redwood (economy), Robert Buckland (Home Affairs), Edward Leigh (Foreign Affairs), Steve Baker (Public Services) and Neil Parish (Environment) – will meet from time to time in a small group with relevant Secretaries of State, a member of the Policy Board, a member of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit…and Mr Johnson. They will then discuss what might be in the manifesto. Mr Cameron’s relationship with his backbenchers is strained at best, and he has striven since the debacle over John Baron’s amendment to the Queen’s Speech to improve it – taking time and trouble to promote James Wharton’s referendum bill, for example. To ignore what these groups have to say would be to risk loosening those ties again. So he would be wise to cut the ’22, in particular, some slack and I expect him to do so – especially because most of the ’22 policy group chairmen are no pushover. John Redwood, for example, is highly intelligent and politically purposeful, and is bound to push both his ideas and those of other Tory MPs vigorously.
However, Isabel Hardman is essentially right to say in today’s Daily Telegraph that the Board itself is being used as “simply a conduit between the back benches and the PM”. Crucially, the Board members have no power to instruct members of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit to work up particular policies or even to examine them. That authority rests with Mr Johnson, who is the only member of the Board permitted to open a door in what a contact of mine with knowledge of the process describes as the “chinese wall between the Board and the Unit”.
The Board members are people of ability. (Peter Lilley, a member of it, was the ’22’s preferred Chairman.) But since they haven’t been elected by their colleagues they don’t carry the political weight of the five ’22 Chairmen – and are more or less confined, as Isabel says, to putting up their own and their colleagues’ ideas to Mr Johnson. This is bound to grate on intelligent people, a category into which Nadhim Zahawi, the MP for Stratford-Upon-Avon, certainly falls. Zahawi has criticised the Government’s planning policy. As he himself has said, he was speaking in doing so not as a member of the Policy Board, but as a local MP. And in doing so, he was reflecting the unpopularity of the policy not only among his own constituents (and, doubtless, his local Association and Conservative councillors), but in the shires more widely. This is not to say that he is right. The country needs more homes. Not all of them can be built within urban areas. The planning policy is an attempt to strike a balance between government’s desire to build more houses and retaining a role for local authorities in the process.
But whether one agrees or disagrees with Zahawi, one point is clear. He is not, repeat not, a member of the executive: policy board places are party appointments, not government ones. He should therefore be under no obligation whatsoever to speak for this administration rather than his constituents. That he has apparently been told to toe the line or leave the Unit reflects the manner in which Downing Street is seeking surreptitiously to expand the payroll vote. Almost half of all Tory MPs are now under some special obligation to vote with the Government.
This is grossly disproportionate. Most MPs should be under no requirement to vote with a Party other than those that they incur by taking a Whip. And there are too many Ministers already. The Board has already lost Jesse Norman – sacked from the Board after defying the Government on Syria. His defiance and Zahawi’s independent-mindedness reflect a growing Parliamentary trend – namely, that backbench Conservative MPs are increasingly disinclined to act like New Labour clones. Rather than seeking to fight the trend by expanding the payroll, Number 10 would be wise to go with the flow – which means, in this case, letting Zahawi speak his mind.