Yesterday Tim Montgomerie wrote a depressing piece on Conservative Home, reporting the views of Number 10 stating that Conservative victory in the 2015 election would be difficult if not impossible, and that a further period of Coalition with the Lib Dems might be the best outcome. This pessimism was based on the inability of Conservatives to win more than 36% of the vote in the last four elections, and the absence of a way of “transforming the brand” in time for a knock out offer at the next election.
Let us assume Mr Montgomerie did his research well. I have no doubt that the issues raised by Number 10 are serious ones which Conservatives need to address. He mentioned two in particular which do matter a lot. He reported that there are worries the health changes could upset more electors. He quoted a Lib Dem source as saying that Conservative Ministers are not engaged in tackling one of the great evils of our time, unemployment.
I disagree with his statement that there are no people within the Conservative party expressing an alternative which could make a difference for the country, and in due course for Conservative electoral prospects. He is right that there is no figure on the right acting as a challenger or alternative to David Cameron. That is a deliberate choice by some figures on the so called right. They do not wish to be factional, to create an impression of personality based splits. They do not wish to divert the government from its crucial national task of economic recovery and public budget improvement.It is an irony that this is taken by some on the inside as a welcome weakness, rather than as a wise and helpful assistance to a government facing a very difficult set of challenges.
There are a wide range of attractive policies proposed by a range of Conservative backbenchers that could make an appreciable difference to the future of the coutnry, and could boost Conservative poll ratings. Many Conservative MPs do not share the pessimisim about prospects. After all, they argue, the polls were boosted rapidly by using the veto on the EU last December, and were boosted again by the benefits cap policy in January.
There are many ideas bubbling out of the talented 2010 intake on new Conservative MPs, as well as ideas coming from more experienced Parliamentarians. Most Conservatives would like to break the state banks up and get them powering a stronger recovery. Tough action to make the banks work better polls well. Many Conservatives would like a revolution in the energy department, so the UK could offer cheap energy to fuel industrial recovery as well as helping hard pressed household budgets. Polling suggest cheaper energy would be very popular, would relieve the squeeze on incomes and could be delivered by market solutions with private sector investment money.
Many Conservatives want power back from Brussels, as promised in the last Conservative manifesto. Making moves to start to do that would be popular, as the country is now far more Eurosceptic than its Parliament. Tax cuts are always popular. Conservative Ministers should not let Lib Dems pose as the tax cutters, demanding a higher income tax threshold, when Conservatives are yearning for a tax break of any kind and would happily settle for higher thresholds.
Many Conservatives want a Freedom Bill, to reduce bureaucracy to liberate enterprise to get on with creating more jobs. They want better control of our borders, so more of the jobs go to people already settled here, and want sensible welfare reforms to make it more worthwhile to work. Far from being uncaring about unemployment and people’s prospects for higher incomes, most Conservative MPs I know would list that as one of the most central tasks they wish to promote. In many cases they would say it is the overriding task. When asked about the government, they are proudest so far of the welfare reforms being carried through.
Conservative MPs wish Andrew Lansley well with the health reforms. They were unhappy about the way the Lib Dems forced a pause and then changes in them. Mr Clegg had after all signed up to the whole package and signed a ringing recommendation of them in the original White Paper. Conservatives have no difficulty with giving more power to Doctors to make choices for their patients. They are becoming more nervous about the bureaucratic changes being forced on the government by Lib Dem and special interest pleading. It would be wrong to think the health reforms were some incubus designed by the Conservative right. Most Conservative MPs are entirely pragamatic about the reforms, wish them well, and do not wish them to do any damage (nor do they do any damage by design). All Conservative MPs I know are wedded to the funadamental popular principle of the NHS, free at the point of need. The government did not embark on these reforms to placate the “right”.
All Conservative MPs recognise that the next budget is a crucial event for Conservative and government fortunes. This is the last budget that allows three years to see the beneficial consequences of any of its proposals, and still allows a decent length of time to undertake reform and get it to settle down before the General Election. The budget needs to set the course for faster growth – and therefore for a lower budget deficit – for the rest of the Parliament. The best way to get the deficit down is to promote faster growth and generate many more jobs. If the government does this, the Conservatives could be rewarded with a majority next time. There is no substitute for fixing the roof now it’s raining. I will return to more detailed Budget measures in the days ahead.