Dean Godson is Director of Policy Exchange.
How does a newly re-ascendant Conservative Government maintain the momentum of the greatest electoral success since Margaret Thatcher’s triumph over Michael Foot in 1983?
This is the question posed and answered in a new Policy Exchange briefing paper, The First Hundred Days – published today with a foreword by John Howard, the former Australian Prime Minister. Howard is of course a great friend to the United Kingdom and a leading light in the broad “Conservative international”; he is always willing to offer solidarity and counsel to the global centre-right. He greatly admires Boris Johnson, and this is reciprocated.
His words are of particular interest since this is the golden era of the Australian way in UK politics – witness the leading roles of Lynton Crosby and Isaac Levido in successive Conservative election campaigns. Few, if any, American political consultants have enjoyed comparable influence in British elections.
Early on in the Conservative leadership race this summer, Crosby addressed Policy Exchange to invoke the example of the great Robert Menzies, the Australian Liberal Prime Minister whose leadership spanned the 1930s and 1960s – and who spoke of “the forgotten people”. If ever there was an election for the forgotten man and woman in Britain, this was surely it.
But how to make the bond between Johnson’s Conservatives and the “forgotten people” permanent? How to forge this into a governing programme?
In his foreword, Howard praises Johnson’s leadership skills and notes that he connected to wide sections of the British public by giving people hope during the election campaign. He also urges him to “seize the moment” – to take advantage of his new power in Parliament to implement the ideas and promises contained in the Conservative manifesto. Prime Ministers who don’t move fast to take advantage of electoral triumphs regret it, he notes.
The First Hundred Days offers a roadmap for how to do just that – across our four key research themes of Prosperity, Place, People and Patriotism. It reflects the content of the winning manifesto and builds on the theme of a new national consensus, as there seems to be on getting Brexit done among other issues.
There are some simple things that need doing. We need a date for a Budget. Local authorities in devolved countries cannot set their budgets until devolved governments have set theirs; devolved governments cannot set their budget until the UK Government has done so.
There are bigger themes too. Drawing on the research paper of last summer, Modernising the United Kingdom – a landmark in think tank terms – we urge the Government to publish its English Devolution White Paper and bring forward its National Infrastructure Strategy, focusing on cross-border projects as well as connectivity within the four nations of the Union. It is clear that levelling up the United Kingdom, so that London does not leave the regions behind, will involve – as Howard puts it – “stepping forward with the right investment in transport and other infrastructure where needed… but stepping back so that decisions are not always imposed from the top by central government”.
There are opportunities in housing and planning policy too – not just to overcome Nimbyism by building beautiful homes and places, but to provide some public sector workers, such as police officers and nurses, with affordable key worker housing. As a chapter on housing, outlines, the Government should announce that the next Affordable Homes programme will allocate more capital grant funding to schemes that provide a significant proportion of submarket rental homes for local key workers.
Science, as the Prime Minister made clear in his early speeches on the steps of Downing Street and in Manchester, will be a priority for this Government. We outline how a Defence Advanced Researcy Projects Agency-style agency, for high-risk, high-payoff research – at arms-length from ministers – can be created in shadow form within months at UK Research and Innovation, with funding from April next year, while a Bill creates the genuine Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The chapters on the constitution explain that the Government will need to do more than simply repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act in order to restore constitutional norms in Parliament. A new Bill will have to show that it is clear that the Prime Minister (subject to the Sovereign’s approval) is to have the ultimate responsibility to dissolve Parliament and call a general election. The Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission must be set up quickly as well. But it should not mean delaying, for example, the amending of the Human Rights Act to protect UK forces from a sustained and illegitimate legal assault in the form of lawfare.
There are more fronts that can be opened within the first hundred days. There is a chance for the greenest budget ever, by announcing seed funding for three new British battery gigafactories, to accelerate conversion from fossil-fuelled vehicles to electric vehicles. The Government could protect academic freedom and free speech on campuses, with a Bill to establish beyond doubt in law that academic freedom means that opinions and speakers considered unwelcome by a small number of students cannot simply be banned or no-platformed. With an eye to 1st February, when we should have left the EU, the Government could also start negotiations to enter into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (an idea supported explicitly by Howard).
The good news is that, although the Tories have a parliamentary majority comparable to 1983 or 1987, they have in Number 10 Downing Street a sharper team of policy experts than Margaret Thatcher did. Whether or not there are calls for a new Department of the Prime Minister – as there were in the early 1980s – it is clear that this policy operation will be central to this Government’s reforming agenda. It has its work cut out for the next 100 days but the stunning election result gives it a strong mandate for its mission of modernisation and consensus-building.