Alex Morton is Director of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
Theresa May’s conference speech this year had two goals. First, to secure her position as leader following the recent Brexit turbulence. This was achieved – despite the difficulties around Chequers. Thanks to her effective speech, she remains in a relatively strong position.
The second was to set out a wider and positive vision for what the Conservative Party stands for, aside from Brexit. On that front, the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday was impressive, even if it did not set out a radical new agenda for the country.
It had strong sections on the need for a more civil debate, rightly defending the right of everyone to express their views without personal abuse – even where, as with Diane Abbott, we Conservatives disagree – and setting out the basic tenets of Conservatism. It also contained an effective attack on what Corbyn has done to the Labour Party.
There were positive policies that helped on affordable housing, a key concern of young voters (though as ever, it is worth remembering that the overwhelming majority of people want to own, not rent). There was also a focus on keeping the cost of living down, embodied by the fuel duty freeze.
It is still the case, however, that in the face of Labour’s endless tempting promises (all of them, of course, hollow) the Conservative offer to voters, beyond Brexit, is more slender. Much of the talk at the conference fringe was on the need to flesh out this domestic agenda – and indeed the events addressing such issues tended to be standing room only. (I should obviously declare an interest here, given that this is the Centre for Policy Studies’ primary area of focus.)
The assumption of many people, given the Prime Minister’s travails over Brexit, has been that the task of delivering that agenda would fall to her successor. Yet there is a strong likelihood that May’s influence will prove rather more enduring than many think.
The key importance of the Spending Review
The team around May – and she herself – believe that delivering Brexit gives her a legitimate claim to some time in order to build a domestic legacy. Assuming Brexit is delivered successfully, the Government will immediately refocus on the next Spending Review, which must be completed in 2019 in order to start from 1st April 2020. The Government machine is already getting into gear, with the Treasury carving out time over next summer to deliver this.
The Spending Review is one of the most important exercises a Government can undertake. Time and time again, for example, May has found her hands tied by decisions taken by George Osborne. Despite leaving office just a year after the 2015 election, Osborne and David Cameron have continued to strongly influence the agenda through the sheer inertia of government. Perhaps May could have done more to unpick her predecessors’ agenda without the distraction of Brexit – but it is harder than many think to turn the ship of state around once its course is set.
If she wants to set out a domestic legacy, without promising to ‘go on and on’, she will want the 2020-4 Spending Review to bear her imprint – to shape the Government that her successor inherits just as Cameron and Osborne shaped hers. There were indeed strong hints at this in her speech. The briefing of “an end to austerity”, highlighted in a heading above the relevant part of her speech, shows that she is already developing a sense of how hers would be different from the main Osborne and Cameron review.
It also makes political sense: by the time a Brexit deal had bedded down, it would be hard to then run a sufficiently in-depth leadership campaign, put a new team in place, and then deliver a rigorous and thought-through Spending Review in the time available. If it did happen, it might well be a steady-as-she-goes exercise guided largely by the Civil Service rather than ministers fresh to their posts. Botch the Spending Review – which makes the crucial decisions about where the money goes – and winning the next election becomes that much harder.
May must challenge her Cabinet and others to help her
Number 10 has good people in it. But it is massively overworked and will understandably be focused on securing Brexit – without which both the Prime Minister and the Party are in severe difficulty. Yet the work for the Spending Review needs to begin now – not in six months’ or even nine months’ time.
Cabinet ministers are understandably keen to show that they can think ‘beyond their portfolio’ and set out a wider philosophy. But it is much easier to make general comments about the need for more homes or lower taxes than it is to come up with practical proposals that manage to keep spending down, improve outcomes for the public, and set out a genuinely exciting and authentically Conservative agenda. It is the latter that is needed – not just from ministers, but from the host of intelligent MPs outside the Cabinet who can help by coming up with targeted and concrete ideas. Think-tanks and other parts of the wider centre-right should also be focusing fully on these issues and helping to develop practical but wide-reaching reforms.
A positive Spending Review can reset the narrative post-Brexit
By showing how we can continue to reduce taxes on ordinary people while targeting spending on areas people want to prioritise, and continuing reform more widely, the Conservatives can demonstrate how our values translate into action to help for ordinary people – rather than falling into the trap of setting out great rhetoric that raises expectations then fails to deliver. Corbyn’s hard-left narrative is clear and punchy, but would ultimately wreck the country. Conservatives need to give the voters a better choice.