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Election Notebook

The heir to Dave

This is the first election since Macmillan that the Tories are headlining on increasing the size of the state

The Marx and Engels of the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto are Rachel Wolf and Munira Murza. At least in Murza’s case, the comparison is not intentionally ridiculous. A former adviser on cultural matters to Boris Johnson when he was London’s mayor, she is the first author of a Tory manifesto to have previously been a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

Where did that youthful zeal go? When the Sunday Telegraph seeks to channel the most newsworthy pledge in an election manifesto through the headline “Tories to axe hospital car parking fees for millions” it is clear that this is not a document to let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.  

Even with a car park pledge the small print reveals that the fee-waver only applies if you’re a regular, or NHS staff on the night shift, disabled or have sick children hospitalised overnight. Perhaps a doctor can be stationed in each car park to undertake instant diagnosis and share with the drivers the mixed tidings that they are going to be staying for longer than they thought, but the good news is the parking’s gratis.

This is hardly the making of the political weather that propelled Thatcher back into office. Even Sir Alec Douglas Home’s conspicuously ineffectual 1964 election offering, Prosperity with a Purpose, promised to raise the school leaving age to 16, alongside plenty of motorways and a Channel Tunnel.

Those running this campaign are focussed on delivering one message – Get Brexit Done – to the exclusion of all others. The more noteworthy the other pledges, the more they dilute the potency of that main and defining appeal. Thus the strategy is to keep it simple and let Jeremy Corbyn churn out so many policies and spending commitments that they individually cease to sound special or appear fanciful. 

This involves a clear reading of the currently national temperament. Seeking the quiet life, not all voters want everything that is familiar to them subjected to the disruption of fresh thinking. Isn’t taking the UK out of the EU enough for one Parliament?

As we keep being reminded, the last time that the Tories synchronised a commanding lead in the opinion polls with an opportunity to think-up something clever the result was Theresa May’s “dementia tax” implosion. A recent experience of this ghastliness naturally instils caution now.

The market research suggests that the public is in the mood for more spending rather than less taxing

But it would be a mistake to assume that a “once bitten, twice shy” approach to innovative thinking is the only reason for Boris Johnson’s caution this time.  

It is a plausible pitch to make that ending the Brexit impasse is the pre-requisite for thereafter addressing the other pressing matters of domestic politics. But as this manifesto demonstrates, Johnson’s brand of conservatism is, like the man himself, very much at ease with the complexities of life. Aside from Michael Gove, Johnson’s Cabinet is not packed with noticeably disruptive intellects.

After the “Big Society” transpired to be an aspiration, not a policy, it became clear that the electricity of creative thinking did not keep David Cameron awake at night. Austerity was forced upon him by the financial circumstances he inherited in 2010, rather than because of any “small state” convictions. Office was occupied in order to stop the other lot from doing something worse. Big ideas were for those who “banged on” about matters – like the EU – that Cameron instinctively preferred to leave well alone.  That misreading of politics proved his undoing. 

Johnson is the heir to Dave. Our current prime minister never was, and is not now, committed to the comprehensive rolling back of the state. This is the first election since the age of Butler and Macmillan that the Conservatives are headlining neither on retrenchment nor tax cuts but on the priority of increasing the size of the public sector. 

It is only because the Labour Party’s £83 billion of additional current account spending (and a further £400 billion of capital spending over the coming decade) has expanded the horizon of what a government can splash out, that it makes the Tories’ offering appear unambitious. For every additional £1 Johnson seeks to add to current spending, Corbyn will outbid with £28. The voters are being offered the choice of a lot more, or an enormous lot more.

With only an £872 rise in the threshold for paying National Insurance surviving the Conservatives’ decision to play safe and prioritise nurses and the police, gone is what used to be the unique selling point of being the Tax Cut Party. The announced reduction in Corporation Tax from 19 to 17 per cent has been repudiated. Raising the threshold for paying 40% income tax on incomes of £50,000 to £80,000 has also been dropped. Mooted changes to Inheritance Tax and removing Stamp Duty on house sales up to £500,000 have also been abandoned.

The market research suggests that the public is in the mood for more spending rather than less taxing. As such this manifesto is well pitched to achieve its core priority – to win the Conservatives’ a working majority. 

In government, the task is not just to do less, but to do better. There will be extra funding and a welcome focus on dementia research alongside the reassurance that those in need will not have to sell their homes. But the manifesto offers few further clues on wider Tory thinking. “We need a long-term solution for social care” it says. Indeed we do. Any thoughts at all? Housing policy is another case of offering the same, only more so. Likewise, the section on education commits more resources and programmes, but no hint of reform. Grammar schools, selection and the independent sector do not get a look-in. University tuition fees may see their interest rates eased a little bit. 

A major party cannot operate indefinitely without a fully engaged brain, and a willingness to be pugnacious in the battle of ideas. Neglecting long-term strategy may prove to be clever tactics for 12th December, in which eventuality this manifesto will be hailed as a masterpiece of risk limitation that saved Britain from the Red Terror.

But there will come a time when shifting the zeitgeist is the key to Conservative survival. For that, intelligent discourse will be required with an intensity and urgency that this manifesto knowingly shirks.


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