By Tim Montgomerie
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It is a real honour to be a columnist for The Times and it was an extra honour yesterday to be chosen as Political Columnist of the Year by Editorial Intelligence. I greatly enjoy being able to get up each and every day and pontificate on this blog, in particular, and on other platforms. Overall I'm pretty happy with most of the views I've expressed over the years. I look back, for example, at my opposition to the Tory decision to match Labour's spending plans when it was already obvious that the public sector was getting too big. My concern that the Tories should be focusing on energy prices rather than climate change – particularly pertinent at the moment. My belief that our party under David Cameron has long lacked a blue collar message. That Osborne's first budget lacked a growth agenda. That the election debates were going to be a mistake. This blogpost isn't meant to be a list of things I and ConHome have got right, however. I just wanted to remind you of some of the things I've got right before I make a few confessions and risk you never trusting my judgment again.
So here goes with some confessions. I've got a few big calls wrong and I thought I'd share them with you in the interests of transparency and, I hope, an honest editor-to-reader relationship. The three things listed below aren't the only things I've got wrong. I opposed, for example, John Bercow becoming Speaker but I think Jonathan Isaby was right. Mr Bercow (constant attention-seeking interventions aside) has been a very good Speaker for parliament and for backbenchers. The list below refers to big policy judgments and on three big issues I thought it was time for a hands up moment.
- I'll start by admitting I was wrong to oppose David Cameron and George Osborne's commitment to protect the NHS budget from inflation. I thought the pledge was unaffordable given the economic situation and would mean even deeper cuts in other budgets. On reflection I readily concede that the Tory leadership was completely right. Given demographic and technological pressures just holding the real budget steady was going to be a big task. If this Government had cut the NHS budget the pressures on the service would have become huge. For the next few winters, in particular, there would be headline news stories about how Tory cuts were endangering patients. I have many strategic quarrels with Mr Cameron but his 2006 decision to say that his political priorities could be summarised in three letters – *N*H*S* – was spot on. Eliminating Labour's lead on the NHS was probably his greatest achievement in opposition. It is just a shame that the unheralded NHS Reform Bill has put all of that achievement at risk.
- My second error was on the 50p top rate of income tax. Before George Osborne made his decision to cut it to 45p I had argued that it should only be abolished as part of a big bang tax reform. I called for a shock-and-awe tax reform that would be so dramatic that any change to 50p would not be the next day's talking point. I also suggested it should go as part of higher replacement taxes on high value properties. When, however, the Chancellor did come to get rid of the 50p tax band and he did it as part of a very limited tax reform package I still supported it. I regret that now. People like Rob Halfon MP and Ian Birrell were correct. It has greatly reinforced our party's reputation as a party of the rich. I don't think the damage is terminal but it is real.
- Thirdly my biggest and most profound regret. I spent most of my formative years in an evangelical tradition and believed that homosexuality was wrong. I deeply regret that now. I don't believe my opposition to homosexuality evidenced itself in a way that was ever nasty on a personal level to any gay person but I did argue against laws that would deliver equality. My faith has, I would argue, matured over the years and my politics certainly has. I still want to defend the liberty of Christians and other religions to hold different views on homosexuality from what is now the prevailing view in western societies. It would be wrong for one form of intolerance to be replaced by another. I hope we can build a truly liberal settlement where freedom of association as well as freedom for the individual is protected. I cannot erase my past views but I can campaign for equality today and one explanation for why I have taken the position that I have on gay marriage.
One of the many reasons I don't want to be an MP is that I think this sort of ability to think openly and reflectively is probably impossible when you are standing for office. I hope my commentary in future years will be mainly correct, mainly insightful and mainly put to the service of good causes. What I certainly can't promise, however, is that I'll always get things right.