Robert Colvile is the new Director of the Centre for Policy Studies
Ever since the election in June, I kept finding myself having the same conversation: Things are pretty grim. The public seem to have lost faith in Conservatism, in capitalism – even in business. They think the system’s rigged against them. That the Tories have nothing to offer. That Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell sound like they make an awful lot of sense.
This, we would agree, has to change. The Conservatives need to find a new way of making the case for the market. They need to come up with voter-friendly policies to compete with Corbyn and McDonnell’s promises of lollipops for all. They need to find new faces, with new ideas.
But how to actually do it – especially with Brexit dominating the political agenda? At that point, the conversation normally sort of petered out. Something definitely needs to be done, we would solemnly conclude. But what?
Gradually, out of these discussions, an idea emerged. Might it not be possible to come up with new, voter-friendly, post-Brexit policies, and promote the fresh talent within the Tory party, all at the same time? And, in the process, make a forward-looking, bottom-up case for Conservative ideas?
The result was what we at the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) are calling our “New Generation” project. Over the last couple of months, I have approached dozens of MPs from the 2015 and 2017 intakes and asked them one simple question: if you were handed a draft of the next Conservative manifesto, and told to write in a paragraph of your choice, what would it be?
The result – unveiled last night with speeches from Amber Rudd, Lord Saatchi (the CPS’s chairman) and Graham Brady (who, as well as chairing the 1922 committee, is deputy chairman of the CPS) – is a programme of policy papers and events driven by the ideas of this new generation of Tory thinkers.
The programme is in its early stages. But already, three incredibly encouraging things have emerged.
The first is that it has become apparent, over those endless cups of tea in the foyer of Portcullis House, that the Conservatives have a cohort of MPs who are as passionate about making the country better as any voter could wish for.
If anyone doubts the calibre, or commitment, of these MPs, they just have to listen to them. Listen to Johnny Mercer talking about the need to do more for veterans. Or Maria Caulfield talking about her experience as an NHS nurse and what could be done better. Or Ben Bradley on the impact of social media on young people’s mental health. Or Bim Afolami on the need to dismantle barriers for growth.
Later this week, we will be publishing a pre-budget proposal by Rishi Sunak – whose earlier paper for the CPS on free ports was one of the inspirations for this new project – on how we can get small businesses the funding they need to expand. After that, Chris Philp will be publishing what I think will be a landmark paper exposing the full scale of the housing crisis, and setting out solutions on both the supply and demand side – not just to build the houses we need, but to secure the revival of home ownership.
Luke Graham is writing on how Holyrood and Westminster can make the devolution settlement work better for Scotland’s people. Suella Fernandes, who helped set up a successful free school, is writing about how her experiences can be applied more widely. Matt Warman and Alan Mak are both examining the impact of the technological revolution on our lives, and how Britain can reap the rewards. Ben Howlett, who lost his seat in Bath in June, has some brilliant ideas about how to make this country the global leader in genetic research.
No-one can talk to any of those mentioned – or Kit Malthouse, Kemi Badenoch, Ranil Jayawardena, Nusrat Ghani, Alex Burghart, Paul Masterton, Neil O’Brien, Andrew Bowie and so many, many more – without coming away encouraged and invigorated.
The second thing that has been hugely encouraging is the reaction within the party. It is fair to say that Downing Street and CCHQ have not had the best reputation, over a number of years, for welcoming unsolicited policy advice from outside.
But instead of rebukes for our effrontery, there has been nothing but encouragement. The Prime Minister wrote last week to Brady, praising the CPS’s work in winning the battle of ideas in the 1970s and 1980s and agreeing that the Conservatives “must win that argument again for a new generation, defend free and open markets, and the values of freedom, equality, rights, responsibilities and the rule of law that lie at their heart.”
“As we fight this battle of ideas,” she added, “I want to make the most of all the talent in the Conservative Party – to encourage fresh thinking, and show that we are working together to build an open, global, self-confident United Kingdom. I am delighted that our brilliant 2015 and 2017 intakes will be at the heart of the New Generation project, and I look forward to hearing the ideas that they put forward.”
To have the Prime Minister’s endorsement, and that of the Home Secretary, and the other senior MPs who attended our launch last night, is a powerful signal that the Conservative Party is a place where new ideas are welcome – unlike Corbyn’s Labour Party, which prefers its ideas to be very old, and very bad.
And the final encouraging factor is that we are not alone. From the despair of the post-election period, it seems like the Conservative movement is suddenly buzzing with ideas. Nick Boles is publishing his Square Deal series – which he and I will be debating with John Redwood and Heather Stewart of The Guardian ahead of the Budget. Every day on ConservativeHome, it seems like there is another thoughtful contribution, or two or three or four, on how we can be taking the fight to Corbyn.
The CPS has always played a key role in shaping the debate within the Conservative Party – most famously in the years following its foundation by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph, when it helped sway the nation away from socialism and towards freedom.
Today, we find ourselves with a startlingly similar task. Not to repeat the same formulae, but to engage in that same task of persuading the voters that we are the party with the policies and ideas that will make their lives better.
Our New Generation project is starting with MPs, but we want it to extend to all those bright, young, passionate Conservatives who have the ideas to make Britain a better place. We want to show that a free and fair market is not about financial crashes, overpaid executives and selfish greed – but the best way to deliver, and spread, prosperity. I very much hope ConservativeHome’s readers will support us.