Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the BIS Select Committee, the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Stratford on Avon.
In 240 days we’ll be going to the polls against the most anti-business Labour Party in a generation. We have the fastest growing economy in Europe, inflation is on target and record numbers of people are in work. In our first term we’ve embarked on some of the most radical reforms to welfare and education since the 1940s.
If you were going by the op-eds in Conservative-leaning newspapers you wouldn’t know about any of this. Instead all the talk is of split, schism and looming threat of Tory civil war.
According to pundits, Douglas Carswell’s defection has focused the spotlight on a divided party. Some trace this divide back to the debate over modernisation; others go back even further, to the battles over Maastricht or the fall of Margaret Thatcher. The opposing sides are variously characterised as Eurosceptics and Europhiles, traditionalists and modernisers, or left and right.
I reject this analysis. The real divide in the Conservative Party is between the vast majority who want to win the next election and the minority who want to lose. Everything else is a disagreement over tactics.
While we obsess about a split on the right, it’s worth remembering that few voters self-consciously identify as left or right-wing. Public opinion is more complex and multi-dimensional than these binary categories allow. Polling shows that a majority of people favour renationalising the railways and bringing back capital punishment (both of these are BNP positions by the way, but it hasn’t done them any electoral good). As this website has often argued, it’s equally a mistake to think that the ‘centre-ground’ is some equidistant point between left and right. Rather, it’s whatever most voters care most about at any given moment in time.
In 1997 this was improving public services, today it’s the economy: protecting mortgages, getting young people into work, delivering the skills and the infrastructure Britain needs to compete. Anyone who’s serious about winning the election knows this is the territory on which we need to fight for the next nine months.
In Saturday’s Times, Matthew Parris argued that this means walking away from voters with strong concerns about immigration, voters like the people of Clacton. I disagree. As I am immigrant myself, I recognise Matthew’s point that we need to be forward looking and comfortable with modern Britain. At the same time, writing off an entire constituency which was solidly Conservative until last month is not the way to win a majority.
Occupying the centre-ground means talking to voters about the things they care about – it doesn’t mean you can’t be radical. This is well understood by the 2010 intake of Conservative MPs. It’s no coincidence that some of the best economic thinking of this Parliament has come from MPs elected in 2010, many of whom are hard to pigeonhole as left or right. Take Jesse Norman’s work on crony capitalism, or Rob Halfon’s blue-collar conservatism. There’s a real intellectual energy and excitement in today’s Conservative Party, but it won’t cut through to the public if they only hear our internal squabbles.
Of course Europe matters, but we need to step back and see how far we’ve come. Where previous generations of Tories held arcane legalistic debates about constitutional theory, David Cameron has a concrete strategy. His European policy couldn’t be more clear: renegotiation, reform, referendum. And he’s backed up by a new intake of MPs who want to get things done. The Fresh Start Group founded by Andrea Leadsom has already produced detailed work on what we’d like to see changed, from completing the single market in service to reforming the EU budget. They’ve also been sounding out their opposite numbers on the Continent, preparing the ground for renegotiation. This is the kind of approach we need if we’re going to win the election, not angry slogans and wishful thinking.
The most dangerous delusion being peddled by UKIP is that ‘they’re all the same’. Ed Miliband is not Blair without the war. The policy gulf between Labour and Conservative hasn’t been this wide since the 1980s. The Labour leader really means it when he says he wants a new settlement for British capitalism. We’ve already heard about price-fixing in the energy market, punitive tax for companies deemed ‘predatory’ by the State, and government-guaranteed non-jobs for the unemployed. Miliband wants a Thatcherism of the left, a complete overthrow of the liberal economic consensus. Those who think there’s only so much damage a Labour government could do in one term should look across the channel to Hollande’s France.
Just as important, our major reforms are not the work of one term in office. There are 300 free schools either open or in the pipeline, but we need many more if we’re going to eliminate the gap between state and private education. We’ve carefully piloted in the Universal Credit in this Parliament, but the full rollout won’t be complete until after the election. Without Conservative ministers to drive these policies through, they could easily wither on the vine. That’s before you even consider the prospect of Prime Minister Miliband facing down President Putin.
The present recovery doesn’t mean economic issues are going away. Europe continues to stagnate, the US is still fragile, China is due for a hard landing after years of property speculation. Any and all of these could blow up in the months ahead. When they do we’ll need to be ready with serious answers.
And the minority who do choose protest over power, playing to the gallery over the chance to make a difference, they need to ask themselves when did they become the thing they hate most in the world? When did they become Lib Dems?