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What is conservatism for?

As we grapple with new measures to help us climb down from ‘Coronavirus Everest’ (and weather a few Covid storms along the way), our virtual Party Conference next week is an important opportunity to redefine what being a Conservative is all about.

The Government talks about ‘levelling up’. But this is not always easy to pin down. Ask anyone what it means to them and you will get some very different answers. One person questioned if it is about money for potholes. Another asked if it was a new level on a Nintendo Switch game.

Similarly, Tories often mention ‘social mobility’. But to those outside Westminster, this has little resonance – resembling more a strapline for a new Vodafone commercial than a proposal to extend the ladder of opportunity.

Of course, the Government’s messaging about new hospitals, more police and increased funding for our schools is welcome, but as so often with such announcements, it comes over as a kalashnikov firing off initiatives, with nothing linking it all together; a series of bullets without a target.

In order to make a case to the public, surely the first thing to do must be to signpost Conservative values. That way, even if policies go awry, if they need to be changed or the Government faces problems, there is more chance of the public giving us the benefit of the doubt (at least for a time).

At present – perhaps exacerbated by the pandemic – it is hard to know whether Toryism is for freedom or for authoritarianism, for individual aspiration or family and community, for fiscal conservatism or ending austerity. The only thing in which there is certainty, is Brexit. But this is not enough in itself.

I hope Boris Johnson will use his speech for the Conservative Party Conference as a means of setting out what his brand of conservatism is. Of course, we need a bit of ‘boosterism’ to lift our spirits at this time. But how about a definition of Conservative values for the times we live in? Something we can explain on the doorsteps to an anxious electorate. A conservatism that really shows people we are on their side.

Watch Starmer

In the Commons Tea Room a few days ago, while I was chatting with a down-to-earth, rising star Conservative MP, he made a very eloquent case as to why the Labour Party faces insurmountable challenges at the next election.  His argument was Keir Starmer’s lack of charisma, the incoming Labour civil war and the electoral hurdles the party must overcome, mean that the Opposition is unlikely to win in four or five years time.

Sadly, I don’t agree with my esteemed colleague. Starmer is slowly climbing in the polls: the latest YouGov showed level-pegging to the Tories. Even if this is because of the Coronavirus, it does not matter. Once up, is it really likely that Labour polling figures will go back to Jeremy Corbyn levels?

By stealth, under the cover of Covid-19, he is changing the Labour Party, moving it to one based on social democracy, rather than red-blooded socialism.

In his own conference speech yesterday, Starmer has moved to slay the Corbyn shibboleths. Taking on the mantle of patriotism, appealing to workers, is a pretty big repudiation of Corbynism. His Chief Adviser, Claire Ainsley, wrote a book about Blue-Collar Britain entitled, ‘How to win hearts and minds of the new working class’.

Expect more of her ideas to be reflected in the development of Labour policy. It is notable that the Shadow Chancellor has not committed Labour to any tax rises at present, nor big public spending programmes. This will make it harder for Conservatives to attack the Opposition on grounds of more borrowing, more spending and more debt.

On television, Starmer comes over as reasonable, rather than dogmatic. However, the flip-flopping on policy, his ‘Captain Hindsight’ persona, the “forensic analysis” that does not see the political wood for the trees, are all flaws that can be exploited by the Tories.

In addition, Labour’s refusal to make any hard choices in terms of cutting Government spending – and the continued presence of many hard-left activists in the constituencies – could act as a real brake on the party’s progress.

The public, who are weary and exhausted from Coronavirus, might just vote for Labour, just as they did in 1945. After all, in four years’ time, Conservatives will have been in power for nearly 15 years. “Time for change” might be a mantra that the public can be persuaded by, especially if voting Labour doesn’t frighten the horses.

My MP colleague may be right and the electoral maths may make it impossible for Labour to win next time. But with a volatile electorate and the option of a social democrat party on the ballot paper – with which most of the public’s economic views align – they certainly could present a real challenge to the Tories.

A book on the Cameron years you should read

I am not talking about Sasha Swire’s tome on “the County Set meet Notting Hill”, but a brilliant memoir by Baroness Fall on the Cameron years: ‘The Gatekeeper. Life at the Heart of No 10.

This is a book about the mechanics of politics; it is like reading about the engine of a sleek car, rather than the story of the car itself. You learn a lot about the workings of a Prime Minister’s Office and it is well worth a read.

My favourite part, so far, is the account of former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, crashing his automobile in the Department for Education car park, trying to put his car into the vehicle lift to get to the parking space.

I know a little about this lift, having had the same thing happen to me when I was Skills Minister (although, I just scraped mine, rather than denting) and have concluded that it is seemingly only built for drivers of Lewis Hamilton’s calibre. I found the whole experience quite terrifying, since it reminded me of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the cave walls close in. I never used that car lift again.

17 comments for: Robert Halfon: Johnson’s coming Party Conference needs to show voters that we’re on their side

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