Matt Kilcoyne is Head Of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute.
If you believe anything that’s written about the leadership battle that’s definitely not already happening at Westminster, it is that there is a fight for the soul of Conservative Party underway.
That’s why we’ve seen the relaunch just this week of Blue Collar Conservatism and the One Nation Caucus. It’s why Dominic Raab suggested a 5p cut to the basic rate of income tax, at a cost of £25bn, to an audience at the Daily Telegraph last night.
It’s also why Liz Truss suggested we needed to free up the planning system to build another million homes on our not-so-green-belt; and why Esther McVey called for cuts to foreign aid.
Yet it’s not just in the absolutely-not-hustings and the ‘we assure you this isn’t a leadership pitch’ speeches that this battle is being fought. It’s also taking place every day in the policies that the party’s MPs are putting forward, and in the debates in our Parliament.
Yesterday, when an urgent question was put to the House on the potentially imminent insolvency of British Steel, we saw the current divisions in the Tory Party laid bare.
Andrew Stephenson MP was forced to pick up the baton laid down by his ministerial boss, Greg Clark, to let us all know the Government is committed to an industrial strategy that includes protections and subsidies for steel. As he said: “the Government will leave no stone unturned in its support for the industry.”
Yet just under a month ago Michael Gove was telling environmentalist activist Greta Thunberg and those protesting with Extinction Rebellion that they were “like the voice of our conscience” and that this Government hadn’t “done nearly enough to address climate change and the broader environmental crisis that we helped to create.”
And last October the Prime Minister extolled to the faithful at conference that virtues of Britain as the “home of the free market – where enterprise creates wealth to fund great public services.” I don’t recall Theresa May suggesting that wealth be diverted from public services to fund private enterprise. But then my memory can be as leaky as her Cabinet has been.
The real problem for the Tories is that all three of these positions are actually quite antithetical to one another. You cannot have a free market and believe that government should prop up unprofitable companies. You cannot say that you’ll support industries that are heavy energy users and polluters, and also say we should move to being carbon neutral. You should not push for taxes on a European level designed to put steel workers on the dole, while also wailing and gnashing your teeth at the consequences you’ve helped to create. You should not say that you want British companies to compete under the law, and also suggest you’ll force an America-first style procurement system for British steel.
Mercantilism is bad enough when you’re the biggest trading country in the world and able to bully everyone else. It’s downright foolish when we start protecting one industry with no regard to the consequences of services firms, banks, lawyers, insurers and consultancies that rely on contracts with overseas firms and governments across the world. We cannot honestly believe that we’d end up being the last one to prioritise our home market. This one act of mercantile mercy in Scunthorpe would mean thousands more jobs losses across the rest of the country.
Very little cuts through beyond the bubble. Real world impacts of the abstract positions we take do. We all see the money that the taxman takes from our pay cheque every single month. Jobs lost at a factory will be seen. They’ll also notice if government takes £150m of their money and hands it not to workers that are about to be made redundant, but to a private equity firm based in Knightsbridge.
They’ll also notice if every message sent is muddled. We know this from the Brexit debacle. No one knows what our position is anymore, and because everything so far has been undeliverable (and against what they voted for) they hate it. The Labour Party can’t decide and you can see their poll ratings collapse too.
It takes steely resolve to say no when someone is demanding you do something, anything to help. This has to be the case with British Steel. We elect leaders for a reason. Right now that reasons has to be to turn around and expose the message as one of corporate welfare that benefits no-one but the firm that owns the company.
I cannot believe for a second that the civil service didn’t see this. We must know what their advice to ministers on the business case was. We should know if they thought a £120m loan was a good idea, and if it was used to try and drive private lenders and insurers to extend their lines too. Otherwise we’re again in the dark as we try to work out whether to throw good money after bad – and whether we’re to support the free market, the business on the brink, or the environment.
The muddle need not be. We know from Australia this week, and America too, that where there is a clear message then there is a clear positive response from voters.
It should be simple. Cut taxes, get the government out of your life, ensure the security services can protect you from violence, and embed in every department a commitment to let you decide what’s best for you and your family.
If we don’t, the other side have a simple message: ‘Let us run everything. After all we can’t do as badly as the current lot.’