Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and Innovation adviser at Number Ten during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.
There has been a lot of discussion about what the departure of Dominic Cummings, Lee Cain and the “Vote Leave Gang” means for the Prime Minister and his agenda.
On the sensible assumption that voters care more about what happens to them than who decides meeting agendas in Downing Street, I thought it worth sketching out what I think the different paths are. In other words, let’s talk about what the Government actually does – and the different political choices which underpin its actions.
It’s probably worth saying, first, that the supposed ‘split’ in ideology between the City Hall gang and the Vote Leave gang bears zero resemblance to what I saw during the election campaign (where my seat was firmly on the policy side). The commitment to ‘levelling up’ and Brexit was absolute.
But it is also true that there are essentially two distinct paths, which revolve around a simple question: when the Conservatives go back to the country in four years, what do they want to be able to say – and to whom?
For ease, let’s call this “Just About Managing” Toryism on the one hand, and Affluent Toryism on the other. I should say that I am a fan of the former, though I supported and worked on some of David Cameron’s public sector reforms – but that I think the worst of all worlds would be a failure to choose.
To retain the support of the Just About Managing voters, concentrated in the North and Midlands but also found in coastal areas and indeed on the outskirts of London, this Government is going to have to achieve four things, and fast.
First, better towns. You must be able to show, visibly and viscerally, that towns are in better shape. This is not just an issue with the ‘North’. Go to parts of the outskirts of London, and pretty much any coastal town or small city, as well as the Midlands and the North and you see the same problem. People who are simultaneously proud of their town and their place, and loathe its trajectory: who hate dirt, and crime, the lack of shops and places to do things.
This is more of an uphill battle post-Covid, but still a central one.
It means as soon as lockdown is done, you focus on new markets, incentives for shops, cultural and civic infrastructure (libraries, museums, things for children to do), and a complete lack of tolerance for crime and grime (including through a greater visible police presence).
You fund buses properly, so they come regularly and don’t cost the earth. You make sure there is charging infrastructure everywhere, and create subsidies so thatpeople who rely on cars can shift to electric vehicles easily. You also understand that, in the long run, these towns will thrive if their local cities do.
Finally, you show that you don’t think opportunities for people require them to leave their hometown. The most obvious way to do that is to get serious about skills, training, and job incentives.
Second not just Brexit being done, but Brexit creating change. That has to mean, in large part, a new immigration settlement.
When the points-based system passed into law yesterday, it gained astonishingly little coverage. But it’s one of the few policies that people truly care about (including, it must be remembered, many Remain voters).
A Just About Managing government would consistently make the distinction between the people they have welcomed with open arms (doctors, scientists, successful entrepreneurs from any country) and the people they have not.
Third, public services. You demonstrate you care about public services by giving them money. You build new hospitals. You support wrap around care for school-aged children, and show you recognise how desperately difficult it has been for most working parents during lockdown.
Fourth, jobs. Just About Managing voters believe in supporting hard work and decency, in the family, and in fairness. This has to be reflected in how you incentivise work, progression in work, and incentives for jobs. In the aftermath of Covid, this will be a dominant concern.
Keen readers will have noted that none of this is at all cheap, and it can’t all be met by capital expenditure.
But if the Conservatives don’t show results on these issues, Keir Starmer will make sure it’s noticed. Labour will be a vastly greater threat at the next election.
The alternative is to embark on the long and winding road back to Notting Hill. This would be likely to mean softening the edges of Brexit, even at the price of abandoning the sainted fishing industry.
It would also mean less of a focus on limiting migration, and more on welcoming diversity and helping businesses get the labour they need. It would mean being an explicitly pro-business party, including financial services.
It would entail a focus on urban strivers – for example, over renting and housing supply in very high cost areas. In terms of social justice, it would mean a relentless focus on the most disadvantaged (mostly urban, not in towns) at home – for instance dusting off the long shelved ‘life chances’ strategy, and abroad – wholeheartedly reaffirming the commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid.
Justice policy would likely see a return to the focus on rehabilitation rather than tougher sentencing. Public services spending wouldn’t disappear, but it would take a backseat to more traditional requirements for fiscal discipline, restraint, and relatively low taxes for business. Transport might matter, but it would be cycle lanes and metros, not provincial buses and cars.
In other words, the Government wouldn’t just be using words like ‘global’ and ‘open’ and ‘diverse’, but changing policy. And Cameron won a small majority on a platform not unlike this.
I am not convinced this second path is tenable any more (leaving open the question of its desirability). Cameron hadn’t indelibly associated himself with Brexit, let alone prorogation and No Deal. But if the Prime Minister is going to move towards it, he had better do it now, and wholeheartedly.
Most importantly, there is no third magic middle path. I fear that the desire to talk about the green agenda – important though it is in its own right – is an attempt to do just this.
To be clear, having a net zero plan matters. Everyone supports the environment, and it opens up doors on trade and transatlantic relationships. But it’s not enough to win an election, and it creates no dividing line with the opposition: Starmer will be just as credible on the environment.
It won’t convince Just About Managing voters you are on their side, nor overcome Brexit for Remainers. The Prime Minister still has to choose the rest of his agenda.
I am of course simplifying – there are some combinations. The last election campaign did not promise infinite spending, for example. And tonal changes can make some difference – you can be clear that ‘levelling up’ does not mean ‘levelling down’ for London and the South East. There are some policy agendas that could fit anywhere, such as civil service reform (though they tend not to matter to voters). But you have limited time, limited capacity, and limited choices. Where does your focus lie?
The challenge for the Government is that both paths require a lot of work. The manifesto path relies on results – that means you need to start doing things now, and talking about them. The Cameroon path relies on a public rejection of much of you have said before, in word and deed. A vague agenda in the middle won’t cut it.