Post Clacton and pre-Rochester, two competing ideas of how to win the next election outright, or at least emerge from it as the largest party, are being discussed and debated in Downing Street – as they were before Thursday’s by-election.
- The first is to fight the election fairly and squarely on the economy. This approach stresses the recovery, growth, jobs, cuts in income tax and fuel duty, and deficit reduction – plus schools and skills reform. It is presented as a long-term economic plan for hard-working people, and seeks to contrast David Cameron and George Osborne’s leadership against the record of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. The cuts in the income tax threshold and 40p rate announced at the Conservative Conference are a sweetener for the future. Welfare reform and immigration control are important supporting themes – part of a broader appeal to securing a better future – but are less front-of-house than a stress on economic competence and strong leadership. Comparing and contrasting the weight and experience of the broader Conservative team with the Labour one is an important part of the mix. This plan is consistent with presenting the Tories as the Grown-Up Party, which I made the case for in the conference’s aftermath – trumpeting the reforming work of such Ministers as Michael Gove, Theresa May, Iain Duncan Smith and Francis Maude.
This strategy is founded on the belief that the economy tends to decide elections – and that the coming one will be no different.
- The second is to fight the election on immigration control. This plan is founded on the conviction that immigration now matters so much to so many voters – particularly poorer ones in marginal seats – that it must be put at the very front of the shop window. It would throw Cameron’s caution over the unilateral control of EU migration to the four winds. (Read Mark Wallace’s piece here to get a good sense of it.) A soft version of the proposal would present regaining border control from the EU as a non-negotiable essential for renegotiation under a Conservative Government before a 2017 In-Out referendum. A harder version is based on the sense that words are no longer enough – and that many voters don’t think that there will be a majority Tory Government after the next election in any event. It argues for acting now: regaining control of our borders on the ground that present levels of immigration are causing severe labour market disturbance. Since the Liberal Democrats would not agree to such a policy, it goes on to argue that Cameron should break up the Coalition, and put the matter to a vote in the Commons in order to dramatise the choice.
This view is based on the belief that the progress of UKIP in European and local elections, in the polls and in this week’s by-elections show that the economy no longer stands centre-stage electorally.
This site is all for regaining control of our borders, moving to a points-based system, requiring new immigrants to purchase their own health and welfare cover through a system of social insurance, and ensuring that full access to public services, benefits and tax credits is earned. We argued for this policy in the ConservativeHome Manifesto, and it makes sense to put it in the Conservative one.
Whether immigration should replace the economy as the main Tory electoral pitch is more questionable – as is a dramatic rather than a gradual busting-up of the Coalition. It is true that the EU referendum pledge has made little impact on UKIP-leaning voters – which is scarcely surprising since, as ConservativeHome has consistently argued, the EU isn’t the main issue that gets them going,
But there would be legal questionmarks over any claim that present levels of EU immigration constitute what is in effect a national economic emergency. Some Conservative MPs would oppose any such move, and their number could be considerable – forcing a big internal rupture. More importantly, such a plan would smack of opportunism: why would Number 10 be backing it now if it hadn’t before?
Whatever eventually emerges from Downing Street, one thing is certain. Immigration will play a big part in the next election. And it isn’t just the Conservative Party that is wracked by internal debate about it. Yesterday, Jack Straw said that Labour’s immigration message should be “stronger” and Margaret Hodge declared that it must be “realistic”.
Iain Duncan Smith was singing from the same songbook yesterday on this site when he wrote that the Conservatives “have to show [voters] that we have listened and that their concerns about immigration and the EU are central to our plan”. A Tory win in Rochester and Strood, if it happens, won’t quiet the debate – at least for long.