James Morris is the Member of Parliament for Halesowen and Rowley Regis.
Rather like the hero of the TV show ‘Life on Mars’, I regularly wake up to feel like I have travelled back in time.
Turn on the radio or TV, open the newspapers, or check social media, and you can be forgiven for thinking we are back in the Eighties and Nineties.
The Labour Party gains attention weekly with undeliverable promises, posing as compassionate champions of the people and threatening to re-nationalise private-sector industries. Europe once again dominates the political landscape.
Meanwhile, Cabinet divisions fuel a media narrative focused on political personalities and inter-departmental manoeuvrings to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. It is as if the past 12 years since David Cameron made his pitch to rebuild a revitalised, compassionate, modern Conservative Party never happened.
At that Blackpool Conference we embarked on a long journey which brought us to power – albeit in Coalition and then, briefly as a majority Conservative government. In those years, we worked hard to make sure that we changed the perception of the our Party from one obsessed with its own divisions and ideological pre-occupations to one that would at least get a hearing on health, education, and other issues not traditionally associated with us.
People believed in our broad message and trusted us to make difficult decisions. I say that with the perspective of a thrice re-elected Conservative MP in a tight West Midlands marginal, which we had never held before 2010.
Through all the upheavals of the last two years we are in danger of losing all those hard-won gains. Indeed it could be argued that we have gone into reverse, crashing back to a time when people perceived us as divided, incompetent and out of touch.
We urgently need to re-boot our domestic agenda and shift the dial away from the constant focus on the process of Brexit. We need to show people that we are working for them on some of the most pressing domestic issues that our country faces:
- A high-class education system that offers a range of options into further education and employment.
- An employment environment which gives people pay-packet security and hope for the prospects of their children and grandchildren.
- A social care system which tackles head-on the complex requirements of our ageing population in a way that ensures financial fairness, comfort and dignity.
- A mental health system that provides the same variety of care and access to help that physical health has.
We need to stop squabbling and start reminding people what Conservatism is all about. We need to communicate our successes better but far more importantly, how we intend to build on them.
Take mental health as an example. Our party has delivered more funding, reduced waiting times and increased levels of care. We introduced parity of esteem between mental and physical health, and new ways of assessing where money is being spent and the effectiveness of treatments.
Yet for all of these giant steps forward, focus seems to have been lost. The money we have pledged is not getting to the front lines. The Clinical Commissioning Groups, charged with spending the money, are diverting it to acute physical care budgets and mental health services are not seeing the benefits.
We need to use the data we are collecting on CCG’s more effectively, see where the gaps are and start looking at ring-fencing mental health spending.
If we don’t push a strong domestic agenda forward people will give up listening to us and will be further lured into the arms of Jeremy Corbyn with his fantasy politics.
The Labour Party has already managed to create a narrative that once again the Tories are the bad guys – hard-nosed and hard-hearted. And we have been complicit in this.
The ill-thought through manifesto policy on social care, pulled like a rabbit from a hat without warning or debate, re-toxified the Tory brand at a stroke. It allowed Labour to create the ‘dementia tax’ message and voters thought we were going to take away their house.
On the economy we haven’t linked our success at reducing the deficit to a wider plan to make our country a more stable, resilient and prosperous place. Deficit reduction has become an end in itself and people have become tired of the idea that they are making sacrifices without future reward.
People need to know that the decisions we make in government are all part of a plan to equip our country for the future – more jobs, better services, a welfare system which encourages self-responsibility and looks after the vulnerable and a new approach to mental health which builds a care system that prevents mental illness and creates a happier, more productive generation.
We need to show our values in our actions; in the domestic agenda that we pursue, in the reasons behind our decision making, and in the way we conduct the business of government. If we want people to trust us, we need to show them that we have listened to their concerns and are providing practical answers, not the unworkable pipe dreams of the Opposition.
Constant division will not allow this to happen, and continuing Cabinet divisions only diminishes further what we stand for in the minds of the public.
Next week we meet in Manchester for our annual conference. It is my fervent hope that our Prime Minister uses it as a platform to introduce a well-thought through and revitalised domestic agenda with education, employment, social care and health at its core, to show the public what we really believe in.
I also hope that we use conference to shift the focus from the process of Brexit and Cabinet division. We are a team, united in more than that divides us, with a common purpose and values. It is time for us to be focused and start behaving like the party of Government that the past seven years has proved we can be.