ConservativeHome’s strategic advice may be imperfect but we got some big calls right in the last year.
In ConHome’s New Year editorial from 12 months ago I urged George Osborne to be less political and to focus on his Treasury brief. A fortnight later we launched a campaign to encourage the Conservative leadership to abandon its pledge to match Labour’s spending plans. Without greater spending restraint we said there would be no room to deliver control of borrowing or economy-boosting tax relief. In March we encouraged David Cameron to use his Spring Forum speech to tell voters that Britain was going in the wrong economic direction: "[Mr Cameron] needs to say that we’re living beyond our means. We’re spending too much and borrowing too much.". Matthew Parris was urging the same change of tone: "The new Conservative language should be about waste, maladministration, extravagance, incompetence and drift. The new idea should be the need in hard times for rigour, severity and unsentimentality." Our advice was spurned. Instead the party continued on the path of what I called ‘economic disarmament‘; matching Labour on all big macroeconomic issues and gambling that the electorate had become what Oliver Letwin called ‘sociocentric‘.
Although ConHome didn’t predict the scale of economic crisis our advice would have led the party to be much better positioned for the events that now dominate politics. Instead the Tory frontbench were often left playing catch up – although George Osborne got the biggest call right – rejecting the idea of borrowing even more money to get Britain out of the deepest recession in the developed world.
Fortunately, Gordon Brown looks unlikely to call an early election and the deep bite of recession will steadily pull Labour lower and lower in public esteem. As the election gets later voters will become less interested in ideas to tackle the recession and will become more interested in a greater economic vision. If public spending control is the single biggest challenge facing an incoming Conservative government the larger priority is to own the economic future.
- Destroying Labour’s reputation for economic competence. The scale of borrowing. The growth of dependency. The failure to undertake welfare reform during the years of plenty. Financial scandal. Regulatory failure. The collapse of sterling. The neglect of transport and energy infrastructure. The mis-selling of Britain’s gold reserves. The plunder of the private pensions industry. As the ToryBear remix of George Osborne’s PBR speech proclaimed: Labour has done it again.
- Demonstrating Conservative answers to Britain’s long-term economic challenges. The Tory frontbench has already done considerable work on British competitiveness. There’s the Howe report on tax simplification. Michael Gove’s thinking on science education. The Arculus review of regulation. The potential of the social reform agenda to reduce the long-term demands on government. Support for green technologies. But things must now go much deeper. The Conservatives need to offer a lot more thinking on energy supply, in particular, and Britain’s crumbling transport infrastructure. The overall message: The Tories can renew UK plc again.
- Presenting these messages in imaginative ways. And then there’s the need to communicate (1) and (2) in much, more imaginative ways. The party relies too much on speeches from David Cameron to communicate key ideas. These have diminishing returns. Alongside speeches the party needs YouTube-hosted documentaries, well-planned conferences with opinion-formers, campaigning websites, new advisory councils. The alternative communication vehicles should be chosen to keep attention but also to communicate a depth of message and an openness to others’ wisdom.