Education, the environment and housing are Downing Street’s three campaigning priorities. A newly revitalised Boris Johnson, who clearly no longer fears that Theresa May is strong enough to move or sack him, wants the NHS added to them. His very own campaigning priority is to get £5 billion a year for it; he is returning to that famous Vote Leave controversy. He will raise the issue in Cabinet tomorrow.
One can debate the merits of making the NHS a key Conservative theme back and forth. Our columnist James Frayne believes that it is central to Tory chances in 2022, and wanted last Autumn’s Budget to focus on the health service. The conventional view is that if politics is the language of priorities, then campaigning can’t prioritise everything, that it must therefore concentrate on one’s brand’s strengths, and that making the Tory case on healthcare is essentially a defensive operation.
David Cameron and Steve Hilton once pushed the slogan “NHYes”; the former was applauded and cheered at a junior doctors’ rally. But that was in opposition. Government is another country.
Either way, readers will clock a curious absence to date. What about the economy – or, to use less remote language, you and your family’s living standards? Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling found the Party clearly ahead on one measure only out of twelve: “willing to take tough decisions for the long term”. The economy is central to the application of that view. There are opportunities for the Conservatives here.
Furthermore, economic management, jobs, and living standards are at the heart of elections. We kept asking for a retail message on these from May last summer. It never came. Perhaps that had something to do with the result.
Yesterday, we said that the Prime Minister should make the argument for what Keith Joseph called the social market in principle. It is a statement of the bleeding obvious that she and her ministers must also make the case for their management of it in practice. This isn’t easy at a time of squeezed living standards (though a lively debate is taking place over whether inflation has been overestimated and growth underestimated during recent years).
Needless to say, campaigning only gets you so far. You need a messenger as well as a message. The newly-appointed Dominic Raab will soon be competing with Sajid Javid to make the Tory case on housing. Damian Hinds is an unknown quality at Cabinet level. The Environment has been pushed to the front of the queue by the energy of Michael Gove. Even if you don’t always agree with everything he does, some Tories argue, at least he’s doing something.
It must be added that for all Gove’s brio, and the significance of the environment to younger voters, and of animals to many more, the case hasn’t been made for either being as key to voters as, say, living standards are, or housing, or schools.
Obviously, Philip Hammond isn’t Gove. He’s a manager, not a innovator. But after the horlicks of the last reshuffle there isn’t likely to be another for quite some time. To update Rab Butler, he’s the best Chancellor we have (and a hard done-by one in some ways). Holders of his office have two parliamentary set-pieces a year – the Budget and Autumn Statement – so there’s time to get out and about. In his dry way, Hammond must make the Conservative economic case to the voters (backed up by the new generation of Tory MPs).
Downing Street’s line is that more economic campaigning is coming, and CCHQ is already doing quite a bit on Twitter. But it will need to explain how the economy fits in with the three priorities it has announced. One can only have so many.