Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
Imagine moving home, but to an inferior property within sight of your old house. Day-after-day, you see the new owners making changes, but there’s nothing you can do about it.
That, as you may remember, is the plot of To the Manor Born — a 1980s sitcom starring Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles. It’s also a metaphor for leaving government and going into opposition. In fact, losing power literally means moving out of a house — 10 Downing Street — not to mention ministerial offices all over Whitehall.
I wonder whether our frontbenchers are prepared for the psychic shock coming their way. Unlike the American system which gives departing incumbents many weeks to wrap-up their affairs, the transfer of power in the British system is swift and brutal.
Being stripped of the trappings of office is bad enough – but it’s not until a defeated party sits down on the opposition benches that it realises the full horror of the situation. It is in fact much worse than watching strangers living in your old house. They don’t just make changes, but boast about them to your face, while lecturing you on your shortcomings when you were still in charge.
With humiliation comes remorse. In government, there’s little time to dwell on all the things you should have done but didn’t, because you’re always on to the next thing. But in opposition it catches up with you. Even if you’re not one for regret, the new government will be happy to rub your face in it.
After 14 years in power, the Conservative Party is about to learn a very painful lesson about the cost of not getting things done.
Let’s start with House of Lords reform — i.e. the oldest unfinished DIY job in Westminster. Admittedly, it was Tony Blair who was the first to walk away whistling from that one. However, that gave the Coalition Government ample opportunity to put it right. Unfortunately, the work was bungled by Nick Clegg and sabotaged by a Conservative backbench rebellion. After 2015, there was a chance to get back to it, but the mess was covered up with a dirty tarpaulin and ministers pretended not to notice.
I’m sure that Tory opponents of Lords reform couldn’t believe their luck. They might even imagine that they’ve somehow saved the constitution. Well, not for long they haven’t. When Starmer comes marching in with a three-figure majority, he can rip back the tarp and do whatever he likes with what he finds underneath. He’ll stuff the upper chamber with Labour peers and by the time he’s finished, we might not have a House of Lords, but some abomination like a “People’s Senate”.
That’s the trouble with benign neglect — it clears the way for not-so-benign demolition. Looking back, it’s astonishing that the defenders of a centuries-old institution couldn’t look ahead a few years to the next change of government. The lesson is that we can either do things the Conservative way — or wait for Labour to do it their way later.
The counter-argument is that no parliament (and therefore no government) can bind its successors. Thus even if we do fully commit ourselves to the task of cautious reform, that’s not going to stop a future government from undoing our good work.
Except that well-implemented policy is hard to reverse. Think back to the moving house metaphor — only this time put yourself in the position of the home buyer. Unless you’ve got the money and the desire to undertake a complete renovation, you need to prioritise. So what are you going to change first? The obvious answer is the most ramshackle parts of the house. Features that might not be exactly to your taste, but display high quality workmanship, are going to be a lower priority. Finally, at the bottom of the list are structural components like load-bearing walls. You’re not going to move those unless absolutely necessary.
It’s the same with government policy. Incoming governments can’t do everything, so they leave a lot of inherited policies untouched. For instance, when Winston Churchill returned as Prime Minister in 1951, he didn’t demolish Clement Attlee’s welfare state. Neither did Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Key industries were privatised, but not the NHS.
In 1997, the tide turned again, but Tony Blair didn’t scrap Margaret Thatcher’s trade union legislation, nor did he renationalise the commanding heights of the economy. When it was New Labour’s turn to become history, David Cameron was rather more respectful than Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn. Successive Tory Prime Ministers have even left the fox hunting ban in place — not because they liked it, but because repeal was too much bother.
So what happens at the next turning of the tide? Keir Starmer wants to renegotiate the Brexit deal at the next review point, but he’s promised not to Rejoin. He and his Shadow Chancellor also say they’ll stick to Conservative tax and spending plans. The Labour leader has even expended a chunk of political capital on pledging to keep the two child cap on child benefit — a policy that a lot of Conservatives don’t like, let alone his own party.
I do have some worries for the continued freedom of Free Schools — but is the next Labour government really going to rewrite such an obvious success story? Private schools will likely be first in the firing line — but even there, I wouldn’t be surprised if Labour ministers back-off. In fact, once they realise the cost of pushing large parts of the independent sector into bankruptcy, they’ll run away screaming.
When it comes to binding future governments, one has to distinguish between theory (i.e. the constitution) and practice (i.e. priorities). In most areas, the status quo has a pretty good chance of surviving a change of government — as long as it’s not a complete disaster.
Which brings me to immigration policy. Unbelievably, given Brexit and the promises of 2019, Labour has the initiative here. In fact, such is Starmer’s confidence is that he feels free to announce an ultra-liberal (and completely unworkable) policy before the next election.
But then that’s what happens when a government loses control of Britain’s borders, refuses to address the pull factors attracting migrants to our shores, and fails to squash the pro-migration blobs in the Home Office and the Treasury. The entire system is in chaos, and no Prime Minister since 2010 has appointed a Home Secretary with the ability, desire, resources and authority to sort it out. There is nothing here to bind the hands of a future Labour government. The Left is free to open our borders because they’re effectively open already.
A further — and not unrelated — example is the housing crisis. We’ve had since 2010 to address this ongoing economic, social and political liability, but we haven’t. The Nimby interest on the back benches isn’t the only reason for the failure — but the Bufton Tuftons of the Green Belt should take a bow: they’ve very effectively blocked planning reform.
By now we could have started building beautifully designed new communities according to principles developed by Create Streets and championed by Michael Gove. This could have been model for the millions of new homes that will be built in the decades ahead.
Except that instead of a Conservative housing policy that emphasises home ownership and architectural beauty, it will now be done the Labour way. When tower blocks start rising over the Home Counties, I hope that our remaining MPs realise their mistake.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a very sound conservative principle. Unfortunately too many Conservatives have overlooked the obvious corollary: “if it is broke, do fix it.” Certainly, they’ve ignored the consequent danger: “if you don’t fix it, then someone else might.”