Henry Newman has worked as a special adviser to Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Francis Maude. He was previously the Director of Open Europe.
Not since the worst days of the Brexit impasse in Parliament has politics seemed so fractious. The Conservative Party, which was so united by the historic result of December 2019, now seems to be as profoundly divided as it was earlier that year during the three ‘meaningful’ Brexit votes and the rounds of indicative voting. Après Boris Johnson the deluge has come.
With Liz Truss’s premiership, at the time of writing hanging by the thinnest of threads, what can this prime minister, or indeed a new prime minister, do to put things back together again?
Some argue that there’s nothing that can be done – that the current taxonomy of Tory tribes sees the party not just split between Brexit and Remain, but divided in new myriad ways. They posit that the only answer is a general election, and a period in opposition to regroup.
But, although the Westminster village clamour for an election may continue to grow (and of course the Labour party now confident of their polling position will loudly demand one), there is no constitutional requirement to have one, as my colleague Henry Hill set out yesterday. Any leader who can command the confidence of the Commons can continue to govern.
In fact, it could be argued that the Sovereign could refuse a request for a dissolution under the Lascelles Principles, or perhaps instead that such an ‘improper dissolution’ would be unlikely to be brought forward. With a sizeable majority there is no good reason for the Conservatives to not be able to form a stable majority.
A better approach is to return the primary focus of Government to delivering the 2019 manifesto. In practice of course this will be far from simple, particularly without the uniting force of Boris Johnson, with his charisma and personal mandate from the 2019 election.
Circumstances (“events, dear boy, events”) may force changes of approach on various matters, not least the economy. It was already looking challenging last year to deliver the manifesto’s commitments by December 2024, especially because of the Covid pandemic. The economic turmoil will make things tougher still.
Nonetheless, the Government should explicitly recommit to making the manifesto the central foundation of its policy direction.
The Prime Minister has herself begun to adopt this approach. She told the BBC’s Chris Mason on Monday that “we were elected on the Conservative manifesto in 2019 to level up our country to provide more opportunities to deliver for our public services. That’s what I’m focused on doing”. She then highlighted the investment her Government is making in transport.
It’s a striking change of tone from her leadership campaign, when the rhetoric seemed to be all about tax cuts to generate growth. But what does the manifesto say on growth, balanced budgets, and tax?
On growth, it promises that the Government would prioritise “investing in the infrastructure, science and research that will deliver economic growth”. It also talked about ending the idea that “all growth must inevitably start in London” and that the Government would achieve this through a programme of levelling up all parts of the country.
The Truss Government is already talking again about infrastructure – about ‘road projects’ delivering growth. As far as possible science and R&D spend should also be protected from HM Treasury’s red pen.
On sound money, the manifesto is rather… sound. It commits that “we will not borrow to fund day-to-day spending, but will invest thoughtfully and responsibly in infrastructure… to increase productivity and wages.” It also set out fiscal rules that “if debt interest reaches six per cent of revenue, we will reassess our plans to keep debt under control.”
In his Halloween statement, Jeremy Hunt should directly address this fiscal rule, alongside the new projections of borrowing, particularly given the spikes in the gilts market.
On taxation, the manifesto includes the Trussian goal of a “low-tax economy” underpinned by Johnsonian “investment in education, infrastructure and technology”. It celebrated the fact that the fall in Corporation Tax had “encouraged more businesses to invest and grow in the UK”, and included a “promise not to raise the rates of income tax, National Insurance or VAT”.
Truss can credibly argue that she was seeking to pursue these goals, and ultimately aims to do so (if she can remain in power).
In other areas of policy from fracking to worker’s rights, from animal welfare, to the regulation of the property rental market, the Government should default to delivering the aims of the manifesto rather than deviating from them. But simply returning to the manifesto will not be enough to steady things.
The mini-Budget has become notorious for the policy of removing the 45p tax rate. But that was partly because so many other measures had either leaked or been pre-announced. Ministers and advisers should embody a British version of Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment (‘Thou shalt not speak ill of another Conservative’), and the Government must get better at celebrating the Conservative achievements of the past dozen years in office.
That also means that – unless circumstances are genuinely exceptional – it should avoid undoing the very policies which previous Conservative administrations have put into effect or even law.
There are still more than two years before an election must be called. There just about might remain sufficient time to start to piece things back together again. But for it to do so, the Conservative Parliamentary Party, and the wider Conservative family, needs to remember that fundamentally they dislike the Opposition – and above all the prospect of a government led by Sir Keir Starmer – more than they dislike the other Tory tribes.