Bob Seely is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for the Isle of Wight.
The Government is being flipped from crisis to crisis like a marble in a pinball machine. It’s not all Theresa May’s fault. She’s been so battered at times I feel positively protective of her. But let’s be honest – it’s damaging.
We should be using our conference in two weeks or so to present a vision of Britain, not restaging the gunfire at the Brexit Coral or leadership shenanigans. We need vision, not vitriol.
Brexit is important, and so is the leadership – but so is everything else, such as actually governing. The risk of prioritising purity over compromise and failing to present an attractive domestic agenda over the din of Brexit negotiation and leadership elections is damaging our credibility with voters. We need some intellectual mojo.
Ministerial colleagues are presenting some ideas. George Freeman is doing great work with his Big Tent festivals. But the painful truth is that in the eyes of the electorate these modest advances don’t, to paraphrase Casablanca, amount to a hill of beans.
We need leadership, optimism and intellect – fewer ministerial Eyeores and more va va voomers. Michael Gove at DEFRA, Matt Hancock at Health and Liz Truss in the Treasury are developing decent ideas and wrapping them attractively. Brexit should be a unique opportunity for good governance and prosperity across Government; yet we are limping towards it.
So let me now offer a few ideas in the run up to conference: some would save billions; some cost billions. I am doing so to reinforce a conversation other than Brexit and Bo-Jo. We need to show we trust people, that we’re on their side and we have a vision of where we’re going. We need to combine our two great traditions; liberal confidence in freedom with Tory paternalism. Anyone who believes in free markets without social responsibility hasn’t lived. Anyone who believes in paternalism without free markets hasn’t thought. We need to liberate on one hand and look after on the other. We need both these traditions for our future.
Here are some specifics:
Develop a collective backbone, and scrap the £50-100 billion idiocy of High Speed 2 (HS2). HS2 is nonsense and always has been. Return the money to the Treasury to fund other parts of the New Britain Agenda and invest in a Priority Projects Investment Fund throughout Britain. Commit to break ground on HS3 (the high-speed northern link) and Crossrail 2 before the next election. Revamp commuter lines into London, Manchester and Birmingham. Prioritise the introduction of Mobile Block Signaling that allows more trains to run safely, especially on hard-pressed suburban routes. Presume in favour of reopening old railway lines – and invest a decent chunk more in road and cycle routes while we’re at it. Let’s show that we care about peoples’ daily transport dramas, and that we’re dealing with them now, not in 15 years’ time.
Integrate health, adult social care and local government, saving billions by preventing duplication, improving efficiency and making it more responsive, especially to elderly people. Embrace big data technology to drive proactive and integrated healthcare. Part-fund alternative medicines, such as acupuncture, on the NHS and support arts in health and wellbeing. Allow well-run NHS trusts to reinvest efficiency savings to be rewarded for best practice. Recombine local health authorities with public health and encourage them to innovate.
Small businesses are the generators of jobs and wealth, part of the 80 percent of our economy that’s domestic. We need to relentlessly show we are on their side. Open Europe reports that the top 100 EU-derived regulations cost Britain £33.3 billion a year. Which of these pass a ‘common sense’ test in their entirety? Let’s respect the substance of the legislation whilst reducing its financial impact. Next, encourage councils to tax supermarkets more and small business less, and to tax supermarket car parks to lower charges on high street parking. Prioritise taxing internet giants via a sales tax to fill the Treasury coffers. Strip tax avoiders of knighthoods and peerages. Priortise digital infrastructure – ultra-fast broadband – for 95 percent plus of Britain. Enlarge the Coastal Communities Fund to back larger projects to tempt wealth creators to the geographical fringes of the UK. Bring a halt to the petty-flogging attitude to regulation. Encourage councils to charge developers more for planning advice. Bring back the one-in, two-out rule for regulations.
Cut personal taxation with the savings produced by this New Britain agenda. Simplify the tax system. Have the honesty to abolish National Insurance and roll it into a single income tax. Cut VAT for small builders to encourage honesty. Introduce more (non-industrial) plastics taxes (sorry M&S) and use the money to lower income tax. And devolve more powers to local councils to get them to experiment. Stop linking devolution to house-building targets. Adjust the tax system to encourage other forms of clean energy, such as tidal.
Reverse cuts to policing. Use the London mayorals to showcase policies to tackle violent crime. Stop being embarrassed about Stop and Search; it’s there to save young black lives. Go into the next election as the party of law and order. We’re in danger of losing that tag to a bunch of police-hating Marxists: Shame.On.Us.
Agree a Royal Commission on adult social care to come in after the next election; bite the bullet on it this time. Accept the requests of the female pensioner WASPI campaign – there are thousands of WASPI women in every constituency and some are in real hardship. Not accepting their case is as immoral as it is politically dumb.
Increasing supply is key, but so is building the right housing for local need. Government targets are meaningless if the wrong houses are built. Trust Councils to vary their targets through exceptional circumstance – like being an Island! – and also to stipulate the type of housing needed. Allow more councils to bid for the £9 billion available for social housing to establish a new generation of Council/Starter/Key Worker housing. Reintroduce incentives to refurbish property above shops to deliver housing in town centres rather than the car-dependent suburbs. Ensure sensitive, better design rather than allowing developers to build the same boxy, treeless, edge-of-town estates across the county; we’re conservatives, let’s value beauty.
Extend our Australia-lite style immigration system to cover all work visas, skilled and unskilled. Cap unskilled labour immigration to force our employers to invest in our own people. Don’t cap skilled immigration (those with higher degrees and unique skills). Develop a shared visa system with Canada, New Zealand and Australia and get the same terms as Europe. The world should be our oyster, not just the EU.
Combine hard and soft power to become the world’s most effective smart power nation. Integrate overseas policy under a reinvigorated Foreign Office. Commit to a UK definition of the 0.7 percent GDP aid budget, rather than the often bizarre OSCE definition. Our definition to include the BBC World Service TV and Radio (saving the FCO near £300 million), most peacekeeping operations (saving Defence tens of millions). Include all government overseas spending in the 0.7 definition – an extra £2 billion is spent by departments other than DfID. Make 0.7 per cent a target to reach provided the money is well spent, not an arbitrary target to reach regardless of spend quality. Return to the Treasury the £1.5 billion in aid cash given to the EU. Use the £1.9 billion in DfID economic aid to leverage billions more in private investment, allowing us to reduce the £1.9 billion sum by half. Return that to the Treasury. Overall, from that £2-4 billion saved, reallocate £1-2 billion to the Ministry of Defence for increased spending and give the rest back to the Treasury for tax cuts. Explore more joint procurement options with the US, Canada, Australia and other nations on standard platforms. Ensure reciprocal defence bidding arrangements or ban those foreign firms from nations that don’t. DfiD, Defence and Overseas Trade to be strategically subservient to the FCO, which will have primacy on an integrated overseas policy. Become the global champion for a reformed WTO.
Establish a cross-government group to understand and expose subversion by authoritarian states as part of a raft of measures to protect our democracy, including a commission to examine how to protect our electoral system and free speech. Consider a new Bill of Rights, which focuses on responsibilities as much as rights and which includes clauses guaranteeing freedom of speech. Organisations, such as universities, that fail to enforce their rights should face loss of state funding or prosecution. The House of Lords has become a shambles; commit to a directly-elected second chamber with constituencies on county and city boundaries, with limited terms and a minimum age limit to encourage wisdom and life experience rather than political hackery. Immediately expel remaining hereditary peers from House of Lords.
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Summing up, life’s short. Our time to serve the public good is limited. For God’s sake, let’s get on with it. We need a practical domestic agenda that values quality of life, such as delivering the right housing for communities, delivering practical transports projects and lowering income tax. With business, we’re on the side of the little guy as the driver of employment and wealth. For older folk, we’ll deal with ageing sensitively. For the nation, our overseas policy will be global, generous and robust – and yes, that does win votes when your opponent is a terrorist-supporting, Marxist who thinks NATO was a ploy to start the Cold War.
We’ll protect our democracy, promote our values and enhance honest and transparent government.
Let’s make people feel good about listening to us, our ideas and our hopes for the future. Let’s keep building the Just Nation that we want. Let’s start love-bombing the country with ideas, rather than talk to it like a conflicted accountant on an awkward first date.