Nick Timothy is Director of the New Schools Network and a former Chief of Staff to Theresa May.
Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation from the Cabinet on Friday was a huge moment for the future of the Conservative Party and the Government. It was important because of what it means for the future of Personal Independence Payments, Universal Credit, welfare reform, the EU referendum, and the careers of George Osborne and IDS himself. But it was huge because it exposed once again the most serious weakness the Conservatives have. And that is the perception that we simply do not give a toss about ordinary people.
I always used to find this perception difficult. I was born and raised in a working-class family in Birmingham, and I joined the Conservatives because they did not just talk the language of social mobility: they made it happen, and they made it happen for me. At the time of the 1992 general election, I was twelve, and I had been at my grammar school for less than a year. I knew that if Labour won the election, my school would be closed down and the opportunity I had been given would be taken away. Thanks to the Tories, that did not happen and I became the first member of my family to go to university.
1992 was the year the Conservatives asked the electorate “what does the Conservative Party offer a working class kid from Brixton?” The working-class kid, of course, was John Major and the answer was that they made him Prime Minister. I knew what the Conservative Party had to offer me that year, and as a twelve-year-old, I learned early that Labour, in the pursuit of equality, only hold people back, but it is the Conservatives who help you to go as far as your potential allows.
That, to me, is the fundamental difference between the two parties, and it is why I have been a Conservative ever since. As a result, I used to find it frustrating that anybody should doubt our motives. But over time I came to a very difficult conclusion: while the majority of Conservatives want to help people to get on in life, there is undoubtedly a small minority of people in our Party who frankly do not care very much about others. They might be involved to protect narrow commercial interests, to defend certain class values as they see them, or they might simply be in it for their own careers, but their lack of interest in others is unmistakable.
We all know the kind. They reveal themselves through minor acts of snobbery, strange comments that betray a lack of understanding about the lives of ordinary people, or when they are councillors or Members of Parliament by the policy positions they take. I remember one MP who, as a member of the Shadow Cabinet, once said: “school reform is all very well but we must protect the great public schools, because we need to look after our own people.” Quite how many of the millions of core Tory voters he thought had attended public schools was never explained. And then there are the libertarians who make it a mark of their ideological machismo that they quote Ayn Rand, whose heroic character Howard Roark boasted in The Fountainhead: “I recognise no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom.” No wonder our opponents feel they can accuse us of callousness.
It should be simple enough to keep people like this away from the cameras, out of high office and ideally nowhere near any position of influence in the Party. But if we are going to make sure the Conservatives are always the Party with something to offer a working-class kid from Brixton, identifying the right policy programme is harder.
This is why the clash between IDS and George Osborne is so important. The two men represent, in Tim Montgomerie’s dichotomy, the two approaches of the modern Party: Easterhouse modernisation, which focuses on fighting the kind of poverty found on the Glasgow estate after which it is named, and Soho modernisation, which is all about social liberalism.
Easterhouse and Soho are useful labels, but they represent a false choice for the Party. Both approaches have their achievements – Easterhouse brought us the Modern Slavery Act while Soho brought us equal marriage – but they also have their limitations and weaknesses. Easterhouse requires a focus on fighting extreme poverty rather than helping people who might be just a little better off, but for whom life is still a struggle. Soho often focuses on causes, like the pursuit of “general wellbeing” and support for “green taxes”, that are far removed from – and sometimes run directly against – the interests of ordinary families.
Instead of these polarising approaches, I have always felt we should have a different model, that might – to extend Tim’s language – be called Erdington modernisation, named after the working-class area of Birmingham. With this approach, of course we would still help the very poor and of course we would fight injustices based on gender, race and sexuality, but the Party would adopt a relentless focus on governing in the interests of ordinary, working people.
They are the people whose lives are most affected – for better and worse – by politics. They can’t choose to send their kids to a private school when the schools around them are terrible. They can’t opt out of the NHS if they find themselves in a dirty hospital or at the end of a long waiting list. They are the ones who find themselves out of work, on reduced hours, or with never-ending pay freezes when the economy goes wrong. They find themselves unable to afford the mortgage when interest rates go up. They have to go without when their taxes rise. They are the people for whom debates about tax credits are not about spreadsheets, headlines or dividing lines but about whether mum can go back to work or not.
These people have modest means, but they work hard, they want to stand on their own two feet, and they want to give their children the best start in life they can. They are natural conservatives for precisely the reason that the stakes they have are small. They want stability, certainty, and steady leadership by politicians who have their interests at heart. In particular, they are suspicious of politicians making big promises and dismissive of excitable talk about radical policies. To them, radicalism means risk, and they know they are the ones who lose out when radicalism turns to rot.
To the inevitable criticism that this approach is “chippy”, I should make clear that I am not saying our political leaders need to be working class themselves. Margaret Thatcher was as middle class as they come, and married a millionaire. David Cameron, advised by Sir Lynton Crosby, won the 2015 election by eschewing “exciting” policies and pitching seriousness and competence instead. And there is no shortage of bad MPs and ministers who wear their class credentials on their sleeves.
But the Conservative Party needs to know, at all times, whose side we are on. Many of our instinctive policies – like fiscal responsibility, the maintenance of law and order, and the pursuit of efficiency in public services – strike a chord with ordinary families. But sometimes, ministers are forced to make difficult decisions, and when they make those decisions, their values go up in neon lights. Often – on aspects of welfare reform, the increase in the minimum wage, and the investment in the Northern Powerhouse and the (excruciatingly badly-branded) Midlands Engine – the Government has got these calls right. But when it comes to energy policy, house building, high immigration, cuts to tax credits, the protection of pensioner benefits, and the profile of spending cuts, it has not.
Big decisions in government are never straightforward, but they would be easier to make – and easier for the press and the public to understand – if they were part of a coherent governing philosophy with the interests of ordinary people at its heart. And the most cursory of glances at history shows us that such an approach would not just be right, it would be electorally successful. So let’s forget Easterhouse modernisation and forget Soho modernisation. We need to keep asking ourselves what, in 2016, does the Conservative Party offer a working-class kid from Brixton, Birmingham, Bolton or Bradford? If we do that, we won’t go far wrong.