Robert Halfon: Johnson’s coming Party Conference needs to show voters that we’re on their side

23 Sep

What is conservatism for?

As we grapple with new measures to help us climb down from ‘Coronavirus Everest’ (and weather a few Covid storms along the way), our virtual Party Conference next week is an important opportunity to redefine what being a Conservative is all about.

The Government talks about ‘levelling up’. But this is not always easy to pin down. Ask anyone what it means to them and you will get some very different answers. One person questioned if it is about money for potholes. Another asked if it was a new level on a Nintendo Switch game.

Similarly, Tories often mention ‘social mobility’. But to those outside Westminster, this has little resonance – resembling more a strapline for a new Vodafone commercial than a proposal to extend the ladder of opportunity.

Of course, the Government’s messaging about new hospitals, more police and increased funding for our schools is welcome, but as so often with such announcements, it comes over as a kalashnikov firing off initiatives, with nothing linking it all together; a series of bullets without a target.

In order to make a case to the public, surely the first thing to do must be to signpost Conservative values. That way, even if policies go awry, if they need to be changed or the Government faces problems, there is more chance of the public giving us the benefit of the doubt (at least for a time).

At present – perhaps exacerbated by the pandemic – it is hard to know whether Toryism is for freedom or for authoritarianism, for individual aspiration or family and community, for fiscal conservatism or ending austerity. The only thing in which there is certainty, is Brexit. But this is not enough in itself.

I hope Boris Johnson will use his speech for the Conservative Party Conference as a means of setting out what his brand of conservatism is. Of course, we need a bit of ‘boosterism’ to lift our spirits at this time. But how about a definition of Conservative values for the times we live in? Something we can explain on the doorsteps to an anxious electorate. A conservatism that really shows people we are on their side.

Watch Starmer

In the Commons Tea Room a few days ago, while I was chatting with a down-to-earth, rising star Conservative MP, he made a very eloquent case as to why the Labour Party faces insurmountable challenges at the next election.  His argument was Keir Starmer’s lack of charisma, the incoming Labour civil war and the electoral hurdles the party must overcome, mean that the Opposition is unlikely to win in four or five years time.

Sadly, I don’t agree with my esteemed colleague. Starmer is slowly climbing in the polls: the latest YouGov showed level-pegging to the Tories. Even if this is because of the Coronavirus, it does not matter. Once up, is it really likely that Labour polling figures will go back to Jeremy Corbyn levels?

By stealth, under the cover of Covid-19, he is changing the Labour Party, moving it to one based on social democracy, rather than red-blooded socialism.

In his own conference speech yesterday, Starmer has moved to slay the Corbyn shibboleths. Taking on the mantle of patriotism, appealing to workers, is a pretty big repudiation of Corbynism. His Chief Adviser, Claire Ainsley, wrote a book about Blue-Collar Britain entitled, ‘How to win hearts and minds of the new working class’.

Expect more of her ideas to be reflected in the development of Labour policy. It is notable that the Shadow Chancellor has not committed Labour to any tax rises at present, nor big public spending programmes. This will make it harder for Conservatives to attack the Opposition on grounds of more borrowing, more spending and more debt.

On television, Starmer comes over as reasonable, rather than dogmatic. However, the flip-flopping on policy, his ‘Captain Hindsight’ persona, the “forensic analysis” that does not see the political wood for the trees, are all flaws that can be exploited by the Tories.

In addition, Labour’s refusal to make any hard choices in terms of cutting Government spending – and the continued presence of many hard-left activists in the constituencies – could act as a real brake on the party’s progress.

The public, who are weary and exhausted from Coronavirus, might just vote for Labour, just as they did in 1945. After all, in four years’ time, Conservatives will have been in power for nearly 15 years. “Time for change” might be a mantra that the public can be persuaded by, especially if voting Labour doesn’t frighten the horses.

My MP colleague may be right and the electoral maths may make it impossible for Labour to win next time. But with a volatile electorate and the option of a social democrat party on the ballot paper – with which most of the public’s economic views align – they certainly could present a real challenge to the Tories.

A book on the Cameron years you should read

I am not talking about Sasha Swire’s tome on “the County Set meet Notting Hill”, but a brilliant memoir by Baroness Fall on the Cameron years: ‘The Gatekeeper. Life at the Heart of No 10.

This is a book about the mechanics of politics; it is like reading about the engine of a sleek car, rather than the story of the car itself. You learn a lot about the workings of a Prime Minister’s Office and it is well worth a read.

My favourite part, so far, is the account of former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, crashing his automobile in the Department for Education car park, trying to put his car into the vehicle lift to get to the parking space.

I know a little about this lift, having had the same thing happen to me when I was Skills Minister (although, I just scraped mine, rather than denting) and have concluded that it is seemingly only built for drivers of Lewis Hamilton’s calibre. I found the whole experience quite terrifying, since it reminded me of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the cave walls close in. I never used that car lift again.

Robert Halfon: Johnson delivers for the workers but Starmer could win back their votes

1 Jul

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Blue-Collar Boris

I think readers of ConservativeHome will know my columns well enough by now that when I want the Conservative Government to be better, I am not afraid to say it. But it is also important to dance a jig or two, when they get it right.

Yesterday’s speech by the Prime Minister was a blue-collar speech in tooth and claw. When he said that he would focus on the people’s priorities, he really meant it.

For communities like mine in Harlow, and no doubt those in and around the blue wall, there will be a sigh of relief that there is no return to austerity, that the NHS is King, that schools and colleges will be better funded and housing and infrastructure will be built across our land.

Above all, we now have an extraordinary and exciting offering to our young people – an opportunity guarantee, comprising a choice between an apprenticeship or a work placement. This is a real policy that could make a difference to winning back younger voters as well.

The reason why this Boris Johnson speech was so important was not just the significant policy content, but because it set the direction of travel for the Conservative administration. After a few rocky weeks seemingly being bogged down in the Coronavirus mire, the Prime Minister is back on the front foot, setting out a Tory Workers’ agenda, that millions of lower income workers not only relate to, but can also get behind.

They have been reminded of why they voted for us again. Of course, saying that we are going to ‘build, build, build’ is easier than the building itself, but now the course/trajectory/path has been set, it is up to the rest of the Government to start constructing our New Jerusalem.

Starmer unstuffed

Patrick O’Flynn was one of the early media forefathers (and proponents) of blue-collar conservatism, way back in the days when Notting Hill was regarded as the preferred venue of the Tory éminence grise – a little unlike Dudley, where Johnson was yesterday. So, he is someone worth reading up on or listening to.

However, his recent article for The Spectator entitled, ‘Starmer is stuffed, filled me with absolute horror, because his line of argument, if accepted, would instill a large dollop of complacency in every Conservative.

In O’Flynn’s view, Starmer’s history and background, his inability to develop blue-collar policy, the cultural wars and the Tories’ reputation for economic competency, means everything will be alright on the night.

If we, as Conservatives, believe the above to be true, that way disaster lies; not only will we lose our majority at worst, or have a hung parliament at best, but our historic red wall gains in the North will crumble away.

Let me set out a few reasons why:

First, Keir Starmer is radically de-Corbynising the Labour Party – almost by stealth and under the cover of coronavirus. Almost all the way through the Shadow frontbench, from PPS’ to the Shadow Cabinet, moderates are being promoted. If you look at the calibre of Labour MPs – like Shadow Business Minister, Lucy Powell, or Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas Symonds – you know that the Labour leader is being serious when he wants to present an alternative Government. Meanwhile, the NEC and Labour General Secretary are passing into the hands of social democrats, rather than the far left.

Second, whilst Starmer may not have had his Clause IV with the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, it is certainly a Clause 0.4. In one fell swoop, Starmer has shown the British public that he will not tolerate the anti-semitism that has so infected his party over the past few years – and given a pretty sure signal that he wants to enter the doors of 10 Downing Street.

The idea that the public will care about Starmer’s past record as Director of Public Prosecutions is as fanciful as voters being negatively influenced by Johnson going to Eton, or his early and controversial newspaper columns.

Third, never underestimate the power of Labour. Their message of helping the underdog and the poor is enduring, still popular and extremely potent. They are not going to sit back and let the Tories rule for eternity. The psephological evidence shows that public opinion is leaning closer and closer towards Starmer for Prime Minister.

The latest Opinium poll shows that Starmer is preferred to lead the country by 37 per cent of voters, compared with 35 per cent who back Johnson. While the Conservatives remain four points ahead of their opposition on 43 per cent to Labour’s 39 per cent, the gap has closed from over 20 per cent in February and early March, when Jeremy Corbyn was leader. Scaling the Tory wall is far from insurmountable.

Fourth, on policy: Just because Starmer is a ‘metropolitan’ does not mean that his policies will be ‘metropolitan’, too. His Policy Chief is Claire Ainsley, who wrote an important book, The New Working Class: How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes.

If her views, alongside those of a more communitarian nature as proposed by thoughtful Labour thinkers like John Cruddas, MP for Dagenham (with whom Johnson’s former Political Secretary, my colleague Danny Kruger, is collaborating on big society policy development), or Maurice Glasman, then they could actually have an exciting message to the public, winning minds as well as hearts.

If Tories are busy painting flags on planes, or building Royal Yachts, or shooting ourselves in the foot as we are wont to do on a regular basis – whether it be on free school meals or the NHS surcharge – and Labour are focusing on the cost of living, skills and genuinely affordable housing, I think it is pretty clear voters are going to be looking at the Labour offering, once again.

Having said that, if we come up with more of the blue-collar narrative, I set out in the first part of this article, alongside significant tax cuts for the lower paid, then perhaps O’Flynn could be on to something.

I just wish he wouldn’t say it, nor any other right-thinking individual. Conservatives have to take the next few years as if we have a majority of one, and remember that the political left want the Tories gone, and will stop at nothing to kick them out of Downing Street.