Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
“I will repay your trust” was the message loud and clear to the people of North East England on December 14 when the Prime Minister came to Sedgefield.
The result of the general election was first landslide Conservative victory that I can remember. The atmosphere was jubilant and newly elected MPs like me from County Durham and Teesside, alongside our local supporters, cheered him to the rafters. Coming to the North East, to the seat of the former Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to ram that message home mattered, and showed to everyone how much Boris Johnson meant those words.
There’s a lot of guff written about our Prime Minister, but there are a few things I know from having spent time with him on the leadership campaign. He barely lets other people draft a quote for him, never mind a speech. He meant what he said on those days following the election. And crucially, he also helped define the landscape for the next general election with them.
The twin punches of ‘getting Brexit done’ and the promise to ‘level up’ the country had cut through. Our task was aided by a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes that appeared to the people as desperately divided – amongst other things. With Corbyn, it wasn’t a question of trust that he’d carry out his promises: they believed him. And that scared the bejesus out of a large portion of the electorate.
Living up to that trust started at a pace with the legislation to leave the EU passed within a month, and then we left the EU on January 31st. The big Greenwich speech laid out the path forward on the international stage in early February – in a speech incandescent with positivity about Britain re-launching herself out into the world.
Events then interceded. The global Coronavirus pandemic has knocked every nation in the world for six. The March budget focused on support during Covid-19, and leant heavily into the key general election promises on our NHS: more nurses, new hospitals, GP appointments.
Since then, the virus and and the response to it has been dominant. Massive support for jobs and businesses has been forthcoming – and welcomed. Rules have been written, changed and re-written, as we’ve learnt more about the virus. Vaccines, thank God, now look to be on their way with roll-out, hopefully, beginning to the most vulnerable in a matter of weeks.
But the Prime Minister’s commitment to repay the trust of the electorate has continued alongside the Covid-19 response. In September, the Government made on one of the biggest announcements around levelling-up to date – the expansion of education and training for post-18.
It was the Prime Minister who made the announcement, not the Education Secretary. When Downing Street take an announcement, it’s something that the Prime Minister personally both cares about and gets the importance of. For levelling up skills and wages, this is a big one. Interestingly and importantly too, the big recent announcements regarding both defence, and the environment and future industries, have included heavy focus on them delivering good jobs in the UK as part of the package.
This week, the Spending Review is a crucial next step on that programme of building trust by delivering. It will cover only a year, rather than the three years that were planned, but it’s vital that, for those long-term promises: on education, policing and infrastructure, as much clarity is given as possible to departments as possible in terms of long-term funding.
Having worked inside ‘domestic delivery’ departments myself in my previous life as a SpAd, if these are going to help deliver, this is very difficult to do overnight, so anything that gives them the ability to plan will really help.
No-one is in any doubt that things will not be as straightforward as they would have been without the pandemic, but Rishi Sunak has sensibly already laid the groundwork for the necessity to level with people: decisions cost money.
He’s also made it clear that the Green Book – that’s to say, how the Government works out the various worth of major projects – needs review: something critical to ‘levelling up.’ On both these points, reality is necessary for trust too – openness on the challenges we face will put our successes, when they come, in the right context. And, post-Coronavirus, is a difficult context.
As strategists look towards the next election, we need to remember that the twin sledgehammers in voters’ minds of Corbyn and Brexit will have fallen away by 2024.
But Keir Starmer will have an issue on trust on both which lasts longer than the individual issues themselves. He sat in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, worked to make him Prime Minister and, even when Sir Keir had won his party’s leadership poll, he thanked Corbyn for what he’d done as leader.
On Brexit, we all know that it was Starmer who pushed and wrote the policy of a second referendum. It is clear what he wants to do is to hold the Labour Party together at all costs – trying to play both sides on Corbyn with public praise, then denunciation, and then secret half-way house deals fool no-one. As Starmer continues to struggle to tack both ways simultaneously, on both Brexit and Corbyn, he may well come unstuck. But that’s a matter for him, and we can only control our own actions.
Against the context of Starmer and trust, the spending review gives us a golden opportunity to remind the electorate that they can trust us, just as it did in December last year. Yes, we need the realism about the situation that Britain faces and the impact of Coronavirus has had. But we do need to show that we’ll stick to our levelling-up agenda too.
At the last general election, the final three or four days of knocking on doors in North West Durham were surreal. I didn’t need to convince people anymore – they just wanted to know that their vote would matter, that other people were thinking like them, and they knew that it would a close-run thing.
Next time, they’ll already know that it’s going to be close in seats like mine. What they need is the assurance that their trust was well placed in the Prime Minister, in the Conservative Party and in each individual MP last time. Whatever else it does, this spending review must do that.