Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership, and was founding director of the New Schools Network.
During the 2016 leadership contest, Theresa May announced that she’d create a new Brexit Department; put employees on company boards; block foreign takeovers of UK companies; and introduce measures to reduce energy bills (eventually a price cap).
The reasons for these policies are obvious. She was under enormous pressure to show commitment to Brexit: a new department was an easy announcement (merging and creating departments is low-hanging fruit). She also wanted to capture the new Leave voters who might vote Conservative – more intervention on markets was a way of doing this and helped distinguish her from Cameron.
The decisions she made in those few weeks made a huge difference to her policy agenda as Prime Minister – even if, in the end, she was unable to implement very much. If she’d ended up in a real competition with Andrea Leadsom, who knows what else she’d have announced.
I don’t agree with all these proposals – but more importantly, I’m not convinced that given time and space she would have agreed with all of them either.
Judging by the snowballing announcements from current leadership contenders, they too are using policy to show they have the ability to lead a government while also creating dividing lines with their opponents.
Well, not Boris Johnson. As the front runner it would make little sense him to risk losing votes by laying out a detailed governing strategy. But for others, the only way they can potentially overtake Johnson’s enormous lead with members and persuade MPs to put them into the final two is with ideas.
Dominic Raab has been notable in recent months – long before the leadership contest launched – for raising his profile in part through policy. His knife crime proposal back in March advocted making stop and search easier; increasing the probability of sentences if you’re caught with a knife; and having a fund across government departments to fund preventative programmes with young people. More recently, Sajid Javid has promised to turn on the spending taps to reduce crime – spending over a billion on more police if he becomes Prime Minister.
Meanwhile Esther McVey has promised to halve foreign aid spending, while Rory Stewart wants to double the amount of it to be spent on climate change.
It’s also a reasonable assumption that Michael Gove has at least 50 policies up his sleeve. Last time he entered a leadership race, people were sceptical he’d written his very polic- heavy launch speech in the 12 or so hours since making a public decision to run. As someone who worked with Michael many years ago, I’m surprised it took him that long.
Few of these policies will be truly thought through and tested. I remember when I was in the Conservative Research Department working at midnight to ‘cost’ a policy on education by combing through government accounts (I think in the end I promised we’d scrap an unnecessary new database to fund it). The whole exercise was patently ludicrous and designed to have credible footnotes in a press release that no one read – but it was entirely normal in an environment where a tiny number of people were responsible for policy development. This is the world that even the best-resourced leadership candidates are in now.
In fact, they’re in an even worse situation. At least in opposition you have time – to think, discuss, develop your position. These leadership candidates don’t have that either – they are in a tight race where they need to maintain momentum.
Poorly thought-through policies that exist solely to win among members or damage opponents will bring a world of pain to the successful candidate. The frontrunners need to be very careful that what they announce now is important enough to be worth saying – cutting through to members and the public – and is a principle they’re willing to govern, not just campaign, under.