Nick de Bois is a former Conservative MP for Enfield North.
Winning the General Election in 2015 contributed to our defeat in 2017. As Eric Ollerenshaw wrote recently on Conservativehome, we won in both 2010 and 2015 on competence, and thought we could do so again in 2017.
Yet in 2015 the warning signs of future constituency losses were there, as we saw defeats in metropolitan seats in particular and much reduced majorities in others that paved the way for spectacular losses in 2017.
Competence is not enough, more so when there is a misplaced belief that the economic challenges of the country are far less severe than they were a decade ago.
It is early days following the election, but there is a worrying sense of déjà vu that Conservatives, when in government, retreat quickly into executive-management mode and forget that to win future elections you have to be the party of ideas. We have clearly proved that yet again: after two years of policy formation from Number Ten the subsequent ideas lacked any coherence or political savvy. It begs the question: what, and who, do the Conservatives stand for?
It was a tough question to answer on the doorstep. Young professionals in the private sector were asking my why they should support Conservatives because “having done the right thing all my life you penalise me time after time, I might as well vote Labour and join the gravy train”, and pubic sector workers were almost unanimous in declaring; “ I am a teacher, I don’t vote Tory”, “I work in the NHS I don’t vote Tory”.
Yet there is cause to be excited about our prospects after the disappointment of the election. Most parties, when wounded by the voting public, retreat into opposition, lick their wounds, chose a new leader, and launch new ideas that may propel them back into government.
The Conservatives are most certainly licking their wounds, and they may even ultimately choose a new leader, but they are in power. With power comes not only the chance to demonstrate competence on Brexit and the wider management of the economy (which is the very least the electorate require) but an opportunity to be bold, and launch new ideas for a radical domestic agenda.
Doing one at the expense of the other is not an option. Even if Theresa May delivers a competent, well-negotiated exit from the EU, the public do not re-elect governments out of gratitude. As one commentator pointed out recently, if winning the Second World War didn’t secure Churchill his second term in 1945, any other achievements are unlikely to do so. It’s our plan for the future which will decide the next election
A minority government is not the time to be a timid government, but regrettably the early signs are not encouraging. The idea must not take root that a Conservative government is abandoning both the belief in low taxation, and the belief that people spend their money better than the state ever can.
There is a moral and economic case for low taxation which we should never tire of making. The 2010-2015 parliament I served in both reduced corporation tax and increased the number of start-up businesses, as well as taking more low paid out of taxation than ever before and putting more unemployed people back into work. That should be evidence enough.
Yet the suggestion that austerity be postponed, and that there is only a commitment to keep taxes as low as possible, suggests to many that we may end up trying to compete and even outspend the left. That will only encourage the young professional I met on the doorstep to vote for the authentic left. It’s not a new idea to imitate your opponents, nor is it a successful one.
May has, however, shown she is willing to strike a new tone of conservatism, with more emphasis on intervening in the market where the market has failed. This gave rise to her much-vaunted pledge to cap energy prices, strengthen regulators, and so on. Yet perhaps one of the most pressing issues of our time for those under 40 in particular, is the lack of housing.
We have been far from radical on this front, and continue to prop up the rental market with £25 billion a year of taxpayer-funded housing benefit. This state of affairs is begging for a fresh approach. But to date this has wrongly been considered as un-Conservative, resulting in the huge housing benefit bill and limited policy tinkering to encourage private developers to supply new homes.
Those policy interventions in the housing white paper produced at the end of the last parliament were somewhat tentative, albeit broadly to be welcomed. They relied on financial penalties to pressure councils to speed up building and force them to provide enough land to build on. But this was not good enough to swing those desperate for a home to support the Conservatives at the last election, and we gained no thanks from those in receipt of housing benefit by means of their votes.
With no new ideas on offer at the election, is it not now, when in government, we can be bold? Not just on housing: we should set the tone of a radical new Conservative administration, brimming with fresh ideas across the public policy arena.
Provision of social housing is a means to unlocking the supply-side shortage of housing. It is in fact inherently Conservative to increase spending on building social housing rather than continue to spend over £25 billion a year on housing benefit, which simply subsidises the private rented sector. The latter should eventually be phased out as we benefit from investment in tackling the root cause of limited housing stock and absurdly high rents .
What’s more, unlike the massive house building projects of the 60’s and 70’s clever modern designs can produce housing on a scale, time-frame, and cost that both meets the huge demand and whilst avoiding the mistakes of the past by meeting would-be residents’ aesthetic preferences.
It is also inherently Conservative to cut the welfare bill as a result of investment. With housing benefit accounting for around 14-15 per cent of total benefit expenditure this is a huge prize for the taxpayer, as presently the annual bill is set to grow for decades.
The average housing benefit recipient receives £5,000 a year to help meet rent. The Government’s response to the increasing housing benefit bill is presently an unimaginative, Treasury-led one: to try to stem the cost with real terms “savings” of over £5 billion by 2020/21. The biggest forecast saving will come from reducing social rents, and subsequently the amount of housing benefit paid out to cover the cost, by one per cent a year for four years.
Despite this, in cash terms we will be spending more than we spent in 2010. Surely this expenditure is only going one way and that’s up, as more and more people claim the benefit. Politically there is no gain from the Treasury approach, and in practice we are doing precious little to solve the underlying problem.
A Government response that tackles the root cause of housing problems in the UK, and reduces the welfare bill at the same time, presents an opportunity for popular reform as fiscal conservatism meets social liberalism. And a political party that uses its position of power to radically extend home ownership is a party of ambition and ideas.
As the Conservative Party faces up to the challenges of Brexit, and the reality of a minority government, there are only upsides to radical new approaches to solving today’s domestic problems. More of the same, or aping the Opposition, will be punished by the electorate.
The Conservatives thought that the general election would be about Brexit, and that Brexit affected every domestic issue. On the latter they are right, but the domestic challenges were clearly more important to the electorate.
Yet we have been given a second chance to deliver fresh solutions driven by Conservative principles, be it in housing, health, education or transport. Someone who, despite his many flaws, was quite good at winning elections once articulated:
“We are at a crossroads: party, government, country. Do we take modest though important steps of improvement? Or do we make the great push forward for transformation? I believe we’re at our best when at our boldest.”
He could have been talking about June 2017, but in fact it was Tony Blair in 2002. He was challenging his party to push for fresh thinking to the challenges of the public services at the time. The country liked his ambition, and rewarded Labour with eight more years in office.
Surely now more than ever is the time to be bold. Convention says governments lose elections, and while the myth persists that the Conservatives did not win the 2017 election, the fact is we did. But we will be a sure bet to lose it at the next election unless it is clear to voters what and who the Conservatives stand for. In government, we have the chance to show them.