Nearly a fortnight ago ConservativeHome began a discussion regarding the extent to which the Conservative Party should be bolder. We talked about a friendly debate at the highest levels of the party – between hares and tortoises. It’s been a debate that has appeared in mainstream media almost daily since. On the whole we believe that the party needs to be bolder – not in every portfolio – but because the nation’s deterioration during the Labour years demands it. You largely appear to agree according to your responses to our recent poll (although you are willing to wait until after the local elections before making definitive decisions):
- The electoral system means that Conservatives need a large opinion poll lead in order to win even a very small parliamentary majority. Our campaign against ‘unfair seats’ is a small attempt to address this.
- Current opinion polls suggest that Labour will lose their majority but may still be the biggest party.
- Voters unhappy with Labour won’t automatically flock to the Conservative Party. They can vote for the LibDems, nationalists or simply choose to stay at home.
A message described – and advocated – by Danny Finkelstein as "reassurance, reassurance, reassurance" is unlikely to be enough in these circumstances. Without stronger reasons to vote Conservative, only a further, much steeper decline in Labour’s support will give us victory in 2009 or, more likely, 2010.
Below is an outline guide to the main shadow cabinet portfolios and where there is evidence of boldness and where there is evidence of caution.
Treasury. There has been much imaginative thinking under George
Osborne in some policy areas. The switch from taxation of families to
pollution is sensible if not universally popular. Tax simplification,
the abolition of inheritance tax cut for everyone except millionaires
and a commitment to new technologies across Whitehall are all very welcome. The overall
Tory economic programme is very cautious, however. Although Britain
has seen the state grow more quickly than during any other peacetime
period George Osborne is pledged to continue Labour’s spending splurge
– at least until 2010/11. There has also been a retreat from making
the supply-side case for lower taxation. Overall rating: Tortoise.
Home affairs and Justice. Police reform (including elected police
chiefs), a deregulation of stop and search, a major prisons building
programme, the end of the Human Rights Act as we know it and a variety
of other reforms to the criminal justice system put the two departments
headed by David Davis and Nick Herbert at the heart of Tory
radicalism. Within these portfolios we also have promises to control
immigration from outside the EU and a significant shift away from an
authoritarian approach to civil liberties. The parts sometimes seem
bigger than the whole but the overall message from the Tories on these
issues is convincing – particularly because it is wedded to David
Cameron’s commitment to tackle the social factors that make young
people vulnerable to crime. Overall rating: Hare (but narrative
Foreign affairs. William Hague is deservedly one of the shadow
cabinet’s most popular figures. He is this generation’s most
accomplished public speaker and a great asset to the frontbench. But
few portfolio-holders exhibit more caution. Eurosceptics do not
believe that the party will radically alter its relationship with the
EU should the Tories win the next General Election. William Hague is
known to regard the European issue as something like a bomb sitting at
the heart of the party. The bomb is currently stable and is best left
where it is so as not to risk an explosion. William Hague is happy to discuss the referendum issue but lacks a vision for the EU. Some good things have been said about human rights but there’s little beef (yet) behind the words. The Cameron Conservatives
and McCain Republicans have so much in common but on foreign policy –
UN reform, the Iraq troops surge and support for Israel – there is a
large gulf. Overall rating: Tortoise.
Education. Michael Gove’s commitment to the Swedish model of
supply-side schools reform is genuinely radical although hard to
communicate on the doorstep. If enacted it could revolutionise the
British education system by introducing serious competition for the
first time. Other measures – grammar streams in every school, new
freedoms for headteachers to tackle ill-discipline and traditional teaching methods – are less radical
but clearer vote-winners. Overall rating: Hare.
Healthcare. Few departments have more closely followed the
"reassurance, reassurance, reassurance" model. One of David Cameron’s
commitments during his leadership bid was to drop the patient’s
passport and he has repeatedly professed his support for the NHS ever
since – mounting a vigorous campaign opposing Labour’s "cuts". Oppositionally the Conservatives have also done well on MRSA, junior doctors and the NHS computer. There
will be changes under a Conservative government – particularly on
preventative healthcare; a passion of Shadow Health Secretary Andrew
Lansley – but continuity will be marked. Overall rating: Tortoise.
Work & Pensions: The year began with bold welfare reforms from
Chris Grayling. The reforms included action on incapacity benefit and
Jobseekers’ Allowance in particular. Much of Mr Grayling’s action plan
was based on advice from Iain Duncan Smith’s social justice policy
group. IDS favours a much bigger role for private and voluntary groups
and the family in caring for the vulnerable. The extent to which Chris
Grayling moulds a reform agenda based on civil renewal will ultimately decide the
hare/ tortoise status of this policy area. Overall rating: Hare vulnerable to afternoon snoozing.
Defence: Lots of bold thinking from Liam Fox – particularly on
energy security – and some very welcome commitments to improve the care
of servicemen and their families. Dr Fox has not yet been given the
freedoms he would need, however, to shape a very different approach to
defence issues. Overall rating: Hare sat on by tortoise.
Environment: David Cameron has definitely captured the middle class
mood on the environment – propelling the issue to the top of the news
agenda. Most of the difficult decisions – on taxation of air travel,
for example – have so far been avoided, however. Expansion of the
nuclear industry was initially labelled as a ‘last resort’ to please green lobby
groups but the Tory position on the issue is now indistinguishable from
the Government’s. The Gummer-Goldsmith report on green issues is
gathering dust on one of Oliver Letwin’s shelves. Will it ever get
dusted off? Overall rating: Hare-like thinking, tortoise-like action.
Other hare-like policy ideas: English votes for English laws (Nick
Herbert). Sharing the BBC licence fee (Jeremy Hunt). A new settlement on
homeland security and with British Muslims (Goodman, Neville-Jones,
Warsi). Incentivisation of communities to accept housing developments
(Shapps). General commitment to decentralisation (across portfolios)
including the proposal to give local voters a power of veto on large
council tax rises.
Slowest tortoise of all: Transport policy (Villiers).
In conclusion: Although we believe that there is an overall need for more boldness we don’t advocate radicalism in every portfolio. Conservatives can’t fight on too many fronts and no shadow cabinet minister should rush into ill-considered
boldness. It’s also true that time is on the Conservatives’
side. The next General Election is at least one year away.
It’ll most likely be held in 2010. This post is only an interim statement. Tortoise-like
departments still have time to get bold.