John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.
After a poor general election campaign, and with the stakes never higher, it is time to recalibrate our message around the One Nation theme. Ensuring that all benefit from sound economic stewardship, particularly the low paid and disadvantaged, has always been at the core of Conservative policy, even though at times the messaging has been sub-standard. Indeed, the campaign lacked soul, heart and compassion. It failed to convey the message that financial discipline and economic prosperity are a means to an end. We must now harness the power of incumbency to put this right. If we do, despite the Cabinet chatter, the Prime Minister could become the longest serving in the post-war period.
Conservative morale has taken a severe knock since the election result. Everyone, regardless of political stripe, expected the Party to extend its majority against an implausible alternative, and to win big. From a commanding position before the fateful decision in April, the narrative now is that the Tories are in disarray, riven by plotting, and ‘frit’ at the serious prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister.
All must accept that election campaign was woeful. It was uniformly downbeat, and lent itself to easy mischaracterisation that it was all about taking things away from people, rather than supporting them and helping them get on. The Conservative media operation was also below par for allowing issues such as fox-hunting to become a major problem – despite the identical commitment to offer a free vote having gone almost unremarked in both our 2010 and 2015 manifestoes.
By contrast, the Labour campaign focused on soft, positive messages, even if they were unaffordable. It was deeply cynical in its apparent promise to cancel all tuition fee debt, which many in our university towns clearly took at face value – even though they may now be realising their error, to Labour’s cost.
What is frustrating is that we are not short of good news to offer the country: the economy continues to perform strongly, health and education spending is still rising, employment is at record high, 31 million people have seen income tax cuts, with four million of the lowest-paid having been taken out of income tax altogether.
Equally significantly, income inequality is at its lowest level in 30 years, the national living wage is increasing incomes, and the number of people in absolute poverty is at a record low. Whilst acknowledging that still more needs to be done, these are powerful achievements – and messages, if properly marshalled.
Yet, none of this came through in the election campaign. The economy and employment hardly featured, and I cannot recall any serious attempt to rebut Labour’s student tuition fee pledges. Theresa May’s answer that there is ‘no magic money tree’ was direct and honest, but needed more explaining.
If we are to put Corbyn’s Labour back in its box, we must regain our ‘mojo’ when explaining our policies. This involves taking the fight to Labour, and doing a much better job at setting out to the public how our policies are helping them, why we are pursuing them, and that every Labour Government in the post-war period has ended in economic shambles.
This starts with the central rationale of the Conservative government since 2010: fixing New Labour’s economic train wreck. We need to better explain to the public that we are not controlling spending for its own sake, but to repair the enormous economic damage of the Blair and Brown governments, and to reduce the huge debt burden on future generations. This is not a question of ideology, but a return to sound management and basic intergenerational fairness.
It also means explaining how the Coalition Government’s reforms to student finance are leading to record numbers of students going to university, including from disadvantaged backgrounds: poorer students in England are significantly more likely to attend university than their peers in Scotland, despite its ‘free’ university education. The Government should also encourage university vice-chancellors, who are now extremely well remunerated, to break their silence and set out how their institutions’ tuition fees are benefitting their students by funding cutting-edge facilities and by attracting world-class academic talent.
And, most importantly of all, in setting out our policies to the public, it is time to reassert the deep One Nation tradition in the Conservative Party. Labour does not have a monopoly on compassion or social justice. We too have heart and soul – in spades! But we also realise the best way of helping the vulnerable is to ensure fair access to a bigger economic cake.
I was heartened to hear May’s first speech as Prime Minister outside Number Ten, and yet dismayed the Government lost focus on its content over the election period. Some of us have since urged a return to the original message.
Of course messaging alone will not convince: sound policies are a necessity. As possibly the only Brexiteer in the Parliamentary Party’s One Nation group, I am also only too aware that this repackaging of the message must also be accompanied by a successful negotiation and withdrawal from the EU, which many of us are confident we will achieve.
The fundamental facts have not changed since the election, despite the unexpected result. May remains as Prime Minister in command of a majority in the Commons, and the Government is continuing to work for the benefit of all citizens in the United Kingdom. As Conservatives, we now have four years to take advantage of the power of incumbency to set about improving people’s lives, in parallel with negotiating our exit from the EU. If we continue to deliver and get the messaging right, we will then have a compelling vision to offer the country at the next election – and win.