The Tories are developing a manifesto: now is the time to shape their thinking
After a week’s blanket coverage of his recent column in the Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson has this week shifted his focus from burqas to building and to the government’s biggest domestic challenge: addressing the housing crisis. Perhaps he has taken note of another Conservative MP Chris Skidmore writing, this time in the Sunday Telegraph, that Conservatives must start talking about the bread and butter issues that matter to voters: “Each day talking about Brexit is a day that could have been spent setting out our future vision for the NHS, schools, transport, law and order”.
Chris’s article has not had the impact that Boris’s has, but it signals an important undercurrent of activity amongst thoughtful Conservatives in and outside of parliament. Just as Boris might well be using his articles for personal electoral gain, so the Conservative party knows that if it is to survive the next election it must have policies that will win back Labour voters as well as shore-up the Tory base. This presents an opportunity for those that want to put their thinking into practice and shape the Conservatives next election manifesto.
Earlier this summer the prime minister asked Chris Skidmore to chair the new Conservative Policy Commission. He has promised that the commission will “go out and engage with people in every party of the United Kingdom to develop new policies that can improve the lives of people in our country.” Similar to the approach adopted by David Cameron as leader of the opposition in 2005, the commission will begin with five taskforces focusing on the economy, public services, building a fairer society, sustaining democracy and shaping a global Britain. Each taskforce will be led by a couple of backbench MPs, bringing in expertise from outside as needed. It was this model that helped Cameron and Osborne to generate innovative policies for a future Tory government, while at the same time kicking trickier decisions into touch. But the record of the Coalition Government shows how important those first taskforces proved to be: some of the more radical reforms to welfare policy and the decision to change emphasis on environmentalism and climate change originated there. The people mattered too – many of Cameron’s first wave of SpAds were drawn from the policy groups and from the Policy Exchange, the think tank closest to the Cameron/Osborne project.
There are sound reasons for setting the terms of manifesto development at this distance from the latest date for the next election: the speed and secrecy of the manifesto that emerged in 2017 was one of the reasons it exploded under scrutiny. This time round the Conservatives want to take the time to sense-check reforms as they go. Alongside the formal structures of the Policy Commission, Westminster’s think-tanks are also gearing up to shape thinking on the centre-right: the Centre for Policy Studies has beefed-up its policy team under Cameron’s former housing adviser Alex Morton, while former deputy head of policy for Theresa May Will Tanner leads the insurgent policy platform Onwards. Now part of the establishment, Policy Exchange and Reform will be looking to stay relevant, as the pro-Brexit and libertarian thinkers at the IEA and Taxpayers’ Alliance increase their output and mastery of digital platforms, using craft skills acquired at Vote Leave.
And this means there are opportunities for those organisations that have a stake in government policy to get involved too. The Tories say that they want to beat Labour on policy by setting out a distinct vision – a positive step if it means an end to being outbid on student fees, public spending and taxing millionaires. Instead, by talking about individual freedom, aspiration, business and reducing the role of the state, it might be possible to create an optimistic vision that appeals to the aspirational voter that seems to despair of all the main parties. Of course, such policies need partners to deliver them. Housing associations, welfare-to-work providers, care homes and universities should be proactively engaging in this policy-making process. Connect will be working with our client to do exactly that. Because while the commentariat might be unable to tear itself away from what Boris has to say in the Telegraph, it is what the Conservatives’ manifesto says that will determine the landscape in which they will operate if they win. And with the right policies they could.