David Gauke is a former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary.
A week or so into the general election campaign, the signs are that the Conservative campaign is cutting through to traditional Labour voters in northern and midland seats. However, there remains nervousness that there are plenty of traditional Conservative voters who are uncertain and apprehensive.
Let’s create an example to illustrate the point. Our illustrative voter is a longstanding Conservative voter living in a longstanding Conservative seat, probably in the South East of England. Both the voter and the seat voted Remain, but this was not a major factor in how he and the seat voted in 2017. Back then, he thought that Brexit was both inevitable, and could be done in a way that caused little damage to the economy. He now has his doubts on both counts.
Our voter thinks Jeremy Corbyn would be a disaster as Prime Minister. He looks at all the spending promises and wonders where the money is coming from. and whether it would be well spent. The class war stuff alarms him. He knows that hostility to wealth creators means that less wealth will be created. He might not think of Corbyn as Stalin, but nor does he think of him as ‘cuddly Uncle Joe’.
As for the Liberal Democrats, he just doesn’t think of himself as a LibDem. But lots of his friends and family are saying that they are thinking about voting for them. It’s not something he has ever done before, although – come to think of it – he did like the Coalition Government. He doesn’t know much about Jo Swinson, but she seems a more credible figure than some party leaders he can think of.
Our voter starts to think about why he has always been a Conservative. The Conservatives know how to keep the economy on track. Our voter wants world-class public services and rising living standards, particularly for the poorest that need it most. But he knows that what delivers these outcomes is delivering sustainable pro-growth policies. And our voter looks to the Conservatives to do that.
The Conservatives are pro-business – they try to get rid of unnecessary regulations and ensure business taxes are competitive. Unlike the dreamers on the left, they really understand business.
The Conservatives are cautious about the public finances. In the end, Conservatives recognise that someone has to pay for public spending through taxation. He remembers Margaret Thatcher saying that the problem with Labour governments is that ‘in the end, they run out of other people’s money’. Gordon Brown subsequently proved the point. He likes the fact that he votes for the people who clear up the mess not make the mess.
And then he worries. He doesn’t doubt that Corbyn would be a lot worse, but he thinks that the Conservatives have made a bit of a mess themselves. The economy is slowing and he reads about the Bank of England cutting growth projections or the National Institute of Economic and Social Research predicting a smaller economy if we move forward with the Prime Minister’s deal rather than a softer Brexit or remaining in the EU.
He was worried about a No Deal Brexit – practically every economist or business leader said this was a bad idea. He was encouraged that a deal had been reached, but now he worries this is only going to defer no deal until the end of 2020. The Prime Minister says that he will negotiate a Free Trade Agreement with the EU before the completion of 2020, and that he won’t extend the Implementation Period -but every expert says it will take at least three years to negotiate a deal. Our voter believes the Prime Minister when he says he won’t extend the Implementation Period, but also believes the experts who say that won’t give enough time to agree a deal. This, our voter thinks, sounds like a big problem.
As for the public finances, there do seem to be a lot of promises being made by the Conservatives. How is this all being paid for? If our voter wanted to support a party that saw the solution to every problem was to throw money at it, he wouldn’t have voted Conservative in the last few elections. Our voter is sympathetic to higher spending on public services rather than tax cuts. But we seem to be doing both.
In 2017, our voter thought that Theresa May’s government didn’t make enough of the economy. If Eds Miliband and Balls could be defeated on the basis of their fiscal irresponsibility, it seemed such a missed opportunity not to do the same against the more profligate Corbyn and John McDonnell. Our voter is worried that we won’t be able to do the same again because our own credibility is weakened.
Our voter wants to vote for the party of sound economic management but he worries that the Conservatives engaging in a bidding war with a Marxist.
Our voter wants to vote for a party that makes it easier to do business but hears that the bureaucratic burden on businesses trading with the EU will increase. Even businesses trading within the UK will be subject to customs declarations. He worries that the Government seems very dismissive of business concerns.
And our voter hears independent assessments that the Prime Minister’s deal will cause the economy to slow. That doesn’t sound like a good deal to him.
What will our voter do?
He won’t want to let Corbyn in. If he thinks that could be the consequence, he’ll likely stick with the Tories. But that’s probably not the case in his seat, where the Lib Dems are the threat.
On the public finances, he’s not convinced that the Conservatives are as fiscally responsible as they should be. This is letting Labour off the hook but, even on its own terms, he worries that a Conservative government is going to rack up unsustainable levels of debt.
And if the economy slows – and he fears it will, especially as he learns more about the risk of a WTO Brexit at the end of 2020 – the debt problem becomes worse.
Avoiding economic risk has always been a key factor in ensuring our voter supported the Conservatives. He well understands the risk of Corbyn but, as the campaign goes on, he worries about the risk of Johnson too. For the first time, perhaps, in his life, our voter is not sure that he is going to vote Conservative.
There are three things that need to be said about this illustration.
First, the nature of the Conservative campaign might allay these concerns. The Chancellor is putting up a fight to limit the fiscal incontinence. The prominence of No Deal might be downplayed.
Second, there are plenty of other illustrative voters one could conjure up who may play an important role in this election – Workington Man, for one – and the result of the general election will not depend entirely upon the voter I have described.
But, third, he should not be dismissed. Economic competence has been the cornerstone of the Conservative appeal. Remove that cornerstone and the entire structure becomes fragile. Lose this illustrative voter and large numbers of Conservative seats are put at risk.
Both on the public finances and Brexit, the Conservative Party is offering a much higher risk economic prospectus than previously. The Party cannot expect every economic conservative to sign up.