Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.
The new Prime Minister needs to get households and the economy through a cost-of-living crisis, secure our energy supply, and manage an NHS on its knees (albeit with a real terms budget 20 per cent higher than in 2019, and 40 per cent higher than in 2010).
These must be the priorities. Once again, events swamp the ability of the Government to improve the long-term fortunes of the country. First Brexit, then Covid, now energy.
But it is not just events that stand in the way of progress on other fronts. We really do have a problem with long-term policy.
In normal times, this is a function of our overly-centralised government. In the last six years, our short-termism has been exacerbated by three leadership elections and two general elections. Each race creates a demand for new policies, new ideas, a fresh approach (and that’s within one political party). The paint never dries. Nothing happens.
Successful long-term policies work across parties. Reforms take enormous will and focus to get going, but then have a momentum of their own. School reform is one example – started under Margaret Thatcher and Ken Baker, continued under Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis, accelerated under David Cameron and Michael Gove. The core economic reforms under Thatcher were another.
Energy supply could be a contender. An acceleration of clean energy, renewable or nuclear, would be continued by future governments.
What about levelling up?
I’ve always loathed the phrase levelling up but felt there was an important policy agenda within it. There was an opportunity to make short-term gains – improved town centres, more frequent bus services, a crackdown on antisocial behaviour and low-level crime – while embarking on longer-term regional policy: serious devolution, driving up private sector R&D and investment, better infrastructure.
None of this is impossible for a Labour government to follow (which might be why many Conservatives don’t like it). And this agenda will continue to matter to an electorate the Conservatives must keep.
The levelling up white paper didn’t quite manage to corral other departments behind this mission (and it requires all departments to be involved), but it did identify real opportunities. Gove was – as usual – clear about his approach and his policies, and was capable of delivering on them. It is notable that amidst the total paralysis and disinterest the Government has shown in the last few months, two devolution deals have quietly been signed. I hear more are to come.
But, in line with the theme, much of this agenda is likely to be junked. Liz Truss has been clear that she has a different vision for levelling up. Hers will be based on tax breaks, planning reform, and deregulation.
This is a perfectly reasonable approach, consistent with her beliefs (much more typically conservative than her predecessor’s), but she has effectively no time to deliver on it. If it requires new legislation, it is almost guaranteed not to happen. And if companies don’t believe tax breaks will be maintained by future governments, then they won’t make long-term decisions. Why commit to something when you think it will be taken away from you within a few years?
There is then, in my view, a big gulf between what should happen with levelling up, and what probably will. Not because I think Truss’s ideas are bad ones – I don’t, and God knows we need planning reform – but because I think she has little time.
What do I think should happen? In the limited time the Prime Minister will have to deal with anything outside the cost of living, energy, and the NHS, she should ask: ‘where can I show progress in two years?’
Prosaic and boring, I know – but I worry that the external discussion of policy and government consistently overestimates the capacity and speed at which governments can execute.
Plausibly, that is going to be things where the legislation exists, where the money has been committed, and probably where the announcement has already been made. It will require a relentless focus on delivery, not policy, with politicians to match.
The obvious areas to me, all relevant to levelling up, are: policing and crime; overseeing the rapid and effective spending of the existing levelling up funds; devolution deals that are as maximalist as possible; and R&D spending.
These are perfectly consistent with the new Prime Minister’s approach to the world, and she should focus on telling a story of how these will build to a longer-term Trussian approach after the election. That will be, as she has signalled, about private sector investment (perhaps we’ll finally have full expensing), lowered business rates, better transport, and an improved education and skills system.
As I’ve written before, the next manifesto will have to say ‘we started the job…trust us to finish it’. The Conservatives cannot persuade the electorate it is starting from scratch again. For that to work, there need to be some signs of progress. Most crucially on the economy and cost of living, but also elsewhere.
What I fear will happen is another spending review, and a completely new approach. Spending reviews absorb the attention of the entire government for months. All the intellectual energy that might go into driving up the number of arrests, or increasing the efficiency of the NHS, goes into department and treasury fights over budgets.
You then have to sell your new policy platform despite no electoral mandate, to a hostile Lords and to MPs who substantively did not choose you as leader. There is too much in the in-tray for that.