Damian Green: A Budget that proves this is a Conservative Government in the One Nation tradition

6 Mar

Damian Green MP is Chair of the One Nation Caucus.

Although the pandemic took away some of the Budget Day rituals (and I think next year it would be wise to go back to the usual picture outside No 11 rather than this year’s weird staircase ensemble), 2021 has observed some of the usual Budget rhythms. The day itself belongs to the Chancellor, the following day opposition politicians and sceptical journalists pick holes, and then the world moves on, or the Budget falls apart.

By Friday the world was already moving on, so the Chancellor has triumphantly passed the first and most important political test.

What is interesting is the route he chose to navigate while maintaining an incredibly difficult balancing act. He had to keep protecting jobs and companies for the last knockings of the lockdown, while giving a strong platform for recovery and, most difficult of all, showing responsibility towards the public finances.

The elegant way in which Rishi Sunak picked his way through these various obstacles is instructive in what it tells us about his approach, and more widely the Government’s approach, to its central economic task. The combination of necessary increases in public spending in the short term, the skewing of this support to traditionally disadvantaged areas, and the acceptance of tax rises over the longer term to pay for it, showed an admirable practicality.

It also showed an instinct that I am happy to recognise as a modern expression of One Nation Conservatism.

No Conservative wants taxes to rise, but in the real world there are times when borrowing that extra £50billion is not responsible and cutting public spending would be irresponsible. This is one of those times. Interest rates will not stay low forever, so free borrowing is not infinitely available. Equally, the private sector will not recover everywhere unless it receives some targeted stimulus, whether applied to individual business sectors or specific areas of the country.

I observe that much of the criticism has come from the sternest right-wing commentators who believe that in any circumstances we should put tax cuts first and that any deviation from this path will cut long-term growth. Would that this were true. If every tax cut in every circumstance led to higher growth, and therefore a better economy to underpin great public services, then no Government would ever have to take an unpopular decision.

In the real world entrepreneurial spirits will flourish when the surrounding landscape, both fiscal and physical, is friendly. For the UK in 2021 increasing productivity in those parts of the country which have been left behind for too long is the only route to levelling up. This in turn requires a mix of public spending (which needs to be paid for) and Tory business boosters like freeports.

One Nation Conservatives think the market needs to be augmented and underpinned by state action but want to use the power of the market to spread wealth and opportunity. This budget hits that sweet spot.

This is one reason why Labour has been so feeble in its response. Sir Kier Starmer’s problems stem from his faulty analysis of where this Government sits on the ideological spectrum. For all that he has the virtue of not being Jeremy Corbyn, he has drunk the Labour Kool-Aid that tells him this is a hard-right, hard-faced Tory Government aching to destroy the public services in this country. This is demonstrable hogwash, especially after this Budget.

Labour’s loudest point is to complain that some towns with Conservative MPs are benefitting. Since 14 of these towns had Labour MPs before the last election, all this shows is that disadvantaged areas have despaired of the Labour Party. As long as Labour persists in this line of attack, it will fail to gain any traction. Oh well.

While a successful Budget is of course principally a victory for the Chancellor, it also tells us something significant about the Prime Minister. For years he has insisted that he is a One Nation Conservative. Perhaps people will now start to believe him.

He was of course an unusual Brexit supporter in that his social and economic beliefs were always much more in the centre of the political spectrum than many of his followers on that march. For those on the left who like to demonise all Brexit supporters, it is not possible to be a socially liberal economic interventionist in favour of grands projets, and to have supported Brexit. Boris Johnson is a living refutation of their world view, so it’s not surprising they are reduced to frothing fury by his successes.

The last Prime Minister to seize the centre ground and reduce the opposition to this kind of impotent anger was Tony Blair in his early years. In so many ways he and Johson have little in common. But remember that Blair also tried to claim the One Nation mantle for New Labour. The lesson from this Budget is that it is now firmly retaken by a Conservative Government.

Damian Green: Why a forced choice between a Brexity North and a Globalist South would be a false one – and damage our Party

16 Nov

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

2020 has brought many words to the forefront of our conversations: pandemic, lockdown, mask. Suddenly “reset” has become the latest addition to the thesaurus of 2020, as politicians and commentators ponder the future of the Government in the post-Dominic Cummings era. Is Boris Johnson about to head out in a new direction, or would any deviation from the path of 2019 be a politically unwise heresy?

We should start with the Prime Minister’s own favourite self-description. He always refers to himself as a One Nation Conservative. So I take it as a given that he wants to run a One Nation Government: one which seeks to unite, heal and provide opportunity for all. The interesting question is what does this mean for the coming decade, as the country seeks to recover from Covid-19 and make the best of Brexit.

The first change will need to be a simple change of tone. Crossing the road to pick a fight may be a rational strategy in the period of a campaign, especially one which you are not confident of winning, but it is a rotten way to run a government. There are absolutely battles that need to be fought and won, but any administration can only fight on so many fronts at once. If too many people are potential enemies to be denigrated and then crushed, then you rapidly run out of friends. Every government needs loyal friends.

This is a relatively easy reset. The deeper question is whether there also needs to be a significant change of substance. What will a One Nation Government concentrate on, and would that produce a more contented country, and therefore a platform for re-election in 2024?

The short answer is that the Government should re-read the manifesto on which it was elected, and concentrate its efforts on the big promises in it. Brexit has happened – so it should now move on very rapidly to making a reality of levelling up.

Every One Nation Conservative applauds the concept of giving particular help to parts of the country that have been left behind, but also thinks that there are national policies that allow us to do this without creating a competition between North and South.

Much better training and education, both for young people and older workers whose job skills have become obsolete, would benefit everyone, but would have particular effect in towns and cities where jobs have been harder to find.

In health policy, one lesson we have learned from Covid is that it is the co-morbidities that come from poverty and disadvantage that make people more likely to die. So meeting the manifesto commitment to increase healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035 can only be done through reducing health inequality. This in itself would be a One Nation priority, but its practical benefits would be most obvious in the Blue Wall seats.

I observe that there is a rearguard action from climate sceptics against this week’s environmental announcements from the Prime Minister. This takes the form of claiming that no one in the North cares about the environment, as they really want jobs and prosperity.

There are two answers to this. The first is that these policies contain vital measures to make sure that the jobs of the future come to this country rather than others. You can, as I do, want more power generated from wind, and want the people making wind turbines to do so in areas of the UK with traditional manufacturing skills. The second is that to assume that no one in the North cares about the future of the planet is patronising nonsense.

This attack on green policies that were also in the manifesto is a symptom of a wider misconception which is already beginning to spread: that the Conservative Party has to choose between the gritty Brexity immigration-sceptic North and the soft, affluent globalist South.

This is a counsel of despair, as it suggests that there is no way Conservatives can win a stable majority in the long term. More importantly it ignores the capacity of this Government to produce a raft of policies which unite large parts of the country. Strict immigration control (and indeed Brexit) are as popular in my Kent constituency as they are in Stoke, Wigan, or Darlington.

Crucially, though, so are policies which help people into jobs, which preserve a decent welfare system in a time of trouble, and which create the economic conditions that encourage the creation of new businesses. It is not northern or southern (or English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish) to want people to stand on their own and take their own decisions, while being entitled to help from society when they need it. This Conservative version of the welfare state is at the heart of modern One Nation thinking, and our longest period out of power was when Tony Blair and New Labour stole it.

Conservatism needs to be more than libertarianism, and more than small-statism. There are different traditions that come together in the Conservative Party, but what unites them is a respect for our country, out history and our institutions. We will never be “woke” because too much of what passes for progressive politics is transient and illiberal.

But if fighting a culture war from the right involves trashing our institutions, like Whitehall, the judiciary or the BBC, it is dangerously unconservative. A wise Conservative Government will always reform, but very rarely offer revolution. Above all, it should respect the rule of law.

A reset Government will double down on the many excellent promises it made the country last December, knowing that after the worst of Covid has passed it has three years to demonstrate to Conservative voters old and new some visible improvements in public services and communities. The One Nation Caucus is producing a series of policy papers to provide new ideas to help the Government on this course. Let’s hope the new word for 2021 is “recovery”.

Damian Green: We have a chance to show the world what Conservative environmental leadership looks like

5 Nov

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

As we approach the depressing depths of the Covid winter, let’s cheer ourselves up about one of the other big global challenges. It’s been a good couple of months for global action on climate change as some of the biggest emitting countries set net zero targets.

China started off the chain with a surprise commitment to become carbon-neutral by 2060. In the last few weeks, EU governments agreed to make their 2050 net zero target legally binding, while Japan and South Korea committed to a 2050 net zero deadline. And finally it looks possible that the US will also join the net zero club.

Heading into next year’s UN climate summit (COP26) in Glasgow, the British presidency has momentum, which it must now capitalise on.

In the past month, the UK has also made good progress on its domestic climate policies, with a new £2bn Green Homes Grant for households to insulate homes and a commitment to quadruple the UK’s offshore wind capacity. In his upcoming net zero speech later this month, the Prime Minister should show his commitment to climate leadership once again.

In particular he should announce two policy ideas from the One Nation Caucus’ ‘Building Back Greener’ paper, including an earlier 2030 phase-out date for new petrol and diesel car sales and a multi-year home retrofit scheme. Insulating Britain’s homes better than we do is profoundly unglamorous but amazingly effective.

A strong domestic record matters because it gives the UK credibility on the world stage when we try to persuade others to clean up their act. Crucially, we can provide an attractive example that other countries want to follow, by showing that ambitious emissions reductions can go hand in hand with economic growth. This is especially important at the moment as countries decide how to kickstart their economies after the Covid lockdowns.

There is one audience in particular where the UK’s record on clean growth can really resonate around the world: among conservatives. In many countries, conservatives have historically eschewed leadership on climate change. Sometimes they’ve been sceptical of the science of man-made climate change, or they’ve rejected what are perceived to be left-wing solutions. Sometimes they’ve been ignored or overlooked by the climate movement, who have often preferred to speak about climate in language that appeals more to the left.

Whatever the cause, the net result has been that climate is perceived as a left-wing issue. Yet this really shouldn’t be the case. There is no more conservative idea than intergenerational responsibility, and no more important application than climate change. The alleged trade-off between climate action and economic growth – if it ever existed – has been comprehensively shattered by the dramatic reductions in the costs of clean technologies and the proliferation of jobs in the booming clean energy industry.

We also shouldn’t forget that the first significant international climate change speech by a major global leader was delivered by a conservative – Margaret Thatcher – 31 years ago this month.

Conservatives are essential to solving climate change because they are in power across the world right now. They control the public investment, regulation, and taxation policies of many national economies, and so they have to be part of the solution. Some conservatives, like Norway’s or Germany’s, are already doing fantastic work on tackling climate change, and we should make common cause with them. Others such as the US and Australia have made some progress in recent years, particularly at state level, but still have a way to go.

Conservative Environment Network (CEN) research has revealed that a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from countries with conservative governments. On top of this, even where conservatives don’t control the national government, they form a sizable share of electorates, they sit in large numbers in legislatures, and they run many municipal and state governments. We can’t ignore this third of global emissions, any less than we can ignore the significant proportion of the global electorate with conservative values who need to be brought with us on climate change.

Conservatives in the UK now have to join up with our counterparts overseas. We’ve been fortunate to enjoy a cross-party consensus on the need to tackle climate change since well before the Climate Change Act was passed nearly unanimously in 2008. During the past ten years of Conservative Governments we’ve enjoyed the fastest decarbonisation rate of any G20 economy and have established the world’s largest offshore wind sector. We now need to share these conservative success stories with our political allies, and embolden them to lead on climate change in their countries too.

I am delighted to be working alongside colleagues in CEN to reach out to conservative legislators in the US, Australia, Germany, Canada, France, and elsewhere to build a global centre-right alliance in favour of action on climate change that supports economic growth and job creation. I look forward to their international launch event on 9th November with the Alok Sharma, the COP President.

International climate leadership is the perfect role for global Britain in the 2020s, and the year-long countdown to the Glasgow summit has got off to a terrific start. With the UK at the forefront, I hope to see conservatives leading this next decade of decarbonisation.

Three actions that Ministers must take if we’re to live without fear. Or else they and we will be lost.

15 Oct

If ConservativeHome is writing about the Coronavirus, we know where to look for Government information.  A mass of guidance and information is available.

But if, on the other hand, we want to find out the number of operations postponed since the original lockdown was announced on March 24; or that of cancer deaths; or that of those brought about by heart disease; or the harm wrought by rising mental health problems, or domestic abuse, or lost schooling, the Government has not compiled the relevant information and statistics for publication in a way that makes these easily available to find and read.

We are better off if we wish to report the number of job losses.  But these are not issued together by the Government with, say, the rise in child and poverty since late March.  There is no one-stop-shop source of official information about the damage to the economy since then – to livelihoods as well as to lives.  As well, as we say, about those other harms to lives.

Now it is true that not all cancer deaths since March 24, say, can fairly be blamed on the long shutdown.  But it isn’t beyond the wit of man to work out the number of deaths since then compared to those of a comparable six month period in a usual year.

It is also the case that some of any figures published would be contestable.  But that’s also true of official Coronavirus estimates.  For example, the task of working out the number of deaths in England has been has been complicated by two major changes in the way they have been calculated (in April and August).

There is an urgent point to this dry analysis.  Today, Boris Johnson is trapped in a pincer movement between Labour, which is arguing for a short national lockdown, and his own party, which inclines to fewer restrictions faster.  He will try to find a compromise – by tightening the conditions in the most repressive of the Government’s new three tiers, and extending these.  That would enable him to toughen up while avoiding an England-wide shutdown.

So the Prime Minister is set gradually to be dragged by Keir Starmer towards that circuit-breaker lockdown in all but name.  And once in it, there will be no quick way out, since the test and trace system isn’t working well enough to quell the rise in cases that would follow the end of the shutdown.  So that wouldn’t happen at all, or at least only do in a curtailed form.  We would be in semi-lockdown semi-permanently – which seems to be SAGE’s real aim.

All in all, we are all being manoeuvered into an annual cycle of near-total winter lockdowns and partially-eased summer ones, until or unless a vaccine is widely available, herd immunity is achieved or the virus abates.

This would risk bankrupting the country.  National debt hit a record £2 trillion in September.  It has reached 100.5 per cent of GDP, the highest level in 60 years.  We cannot be sure that Britain would be able to borrow for the duration at the present rock-bottom rates to grow its way out of trouble.  Even if it could, there is no guarantee that enough growth would come to stave off medium-term spending cuts and tax rises.

These would intensify the damage that this crisis is inflicting on lives as well as livelihoods – the rising toll in cancer deaths and educational harm and mental health problems which we refer to above, and so much more, including more poverty and deprivation.

Which takes us back to those figures.  There is fierce dispute about whether voters are really as supportive of harsher lockdowns as the polls suggest.  But Johnson can scarcely be blamed for not wanting to sail against the prevailing political weather.

In order to steer his way out of it, he will have to change it: changing the weather, after all, is what the best politicians do. In short, the Government must try to widen and deepen the national conversation about the Coronavirus.  That will take a bit of time.

It entails drawing voters’ attention to the wider social and economic damage that living semi-permanently in lockdown would do. Some of the information that would help to do this is already out there.  As Raghib Ali has pointed out on this site, the Department of Health’s own health cost-benefit analysis shows that to date “in the long-term, the health impacts of the two month lockdown and lockdown-induced recession are greater than those of the direct Covid-19 deaths”.

But Government sources tell ConservativeHome that the Department of Health has been resistant to getting all the healthcare-related facts and figures together in one place.  That’s perhaps not surprising given its focus on the virus.  It’s more surprising that the Treasury hasn’t done a parallel exercise on the economy.

Ultimately, it’s up to Downing Street to make the case, backed up by more information and strategic messaging, against more national lockdowns, with the damage to lives and livelihoods that this would bring.  But the key player in forcing it to change is Rishi Sunak.

If we are truly to live with the virus and “live without fear”, as the Chancellor put it in the Commons recently, we must prepare to shift, in the absence of a track and trace plan that works, to a less restrictive and more voluntarist policy – one based on the balance of risk between the harm that Covid-19 does and the harm that shutdowns do.

And an indispensable part of any push for change is shifting public opinion to support it.  This site has been calling since the spring for the Government to publish its estimate of non-Coronavirus healthcare costs to date; of the costs of lockdown to the economy to date, and of the total cost and total saving of the lockdown (which can be calculated by assigning a value, as government does elsewhere, to each human life in Britain).

Sunak, together with Ministers in other economic departments, such as Alok Sharma at BEIS, needs to push for three actions:

  •  A regular Treasury report that calculates the economic cost of the lockdown.  That’s within his own gift, as it were, and the work could start today.
  • A rolling Department of Health assessment of the human cost of the shutdown.  That will be harder to get.  The Chancellor will need the Prime Minister’s support to extract it.
  • The creation of an economic counterweight to SAGE that considers livelihoods as well as lives, thus ensuring broader advice to the Prime Minister.

Finally, Ministers can’t act as the sole pathfinders for policy.  Intrinsic to Margaret Thatcher’s success during the 1980s was the work of think-tanks and Conservative MPs in preparing the way for change.

There are a mass of Tory backbench groups and wider pressure organisations.  The One Nation Caucus comes to mind for us at once, because Damian Green, its Chair, wrote a perceptive piece for this site yesterday about the choices that the Government now faces.  Perhaps it or the No Turning Back Group – to pick a Parliamentary group a bit different in outlook – could produce a report.

Some of the think tanks are already working in this field.  The Resolution Foundation has done an intergenerational audit.  (See also David Willetts’ recent ConHome piece.)  Policy Exchange has probed the Government’s NHS tracing app.  (Benjamin Barnard wrote about its findings for us here.)  The Institute of Economic Affairs has examined the NHS’ shortcomings; the Centre for Policy Studies has led the way in probing economic costs.

But more work will be needed if public opinion is to move.  In the meantime, Sunak must continue to lead the way.

Damian Green: Here are our One Nation ideas for reviving post-Covid, post-Brexit Britain

27 Jul

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

There has been a flurry of comments about One Nation Conservatism, and what it means in the 2020s, over recent weeks. This is very timely, as for many years the One Nation tradition was linked with pro-European views, to the point where views on Europe seemed to become its defining characteristic.

Those times are clearly past, and one of the aims of the One Nation Caucus of Conservative MPs is to set out a new set of policy priorities, both in domestic and international policy, which we want the Government to adopt. We hope that we are pushing at a reasonably open door, as the Prime Minister has always described himself as a One Nation politician, and certainly his levelling up agenda is absolutely in that tradition. His description of himself as a “Brexity Hezza” may have been rejected by, well…..Hezza, but nothing is easy these days.

Getting the country back on the track it voted for last December is the task for the next four years, and One Nation ideas will play a central role in the successful pursuit of that project. The last thing the Conservative Party or the country needs is a continuation of the Brexit divisions. If the only thing that matters is how you voted in 2016, we will never move on. So through the summer and autumn the One Nation Caucus will be publishing a series of policy papers designed to set out a full agenda for government in the post-Covid period.

The first of these papers is Restarting the Economy, which brings together six MPs from various intakes to address the central issue of our times. Stephen Hammond is the lead author, and he emphasises the importance of a relentless focus on levelling up to extend growth beyond London.

Key proposals in the paper include the development of new local economic bodies to drive growth, expanding the number of planned freeports, and creating technology adoption funds to support the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The report also suggests a number of policies to protect people on low incomes, including suggestions for ending consumer rip-offs, and proposals for managing repayments of Covid business loans, recommending an approach similar to the Student Loan scheme.

Each of these is a meaty idea in its own right, and the full paper is available on the One Nation website. But this array of economic ideas is only the start of the wider project to position Conservative ideas at the heart of the national political debate post-Covid.

Labour may be under new management but one of the features of the Starmer era so far has been the avoidance of any policy discussions. This is clearly a conscious tactic, but while Labour pursues it there is a space to fill in shaping the public mind. It is often observed that intellectual regeneration is more difficult inside a governing party, but it is not impossible, and is absolutely necessary if conservatism is to have another successful decade.

The financial crisis, Brexit, and Covid-19 have been three black swans that have swept aside the original plans developed the last time the Conservative Party was in opposition. They have incidentally also swept aside Tony Blair’s fond idea of making the twenty-first century “the progressive century”, by which he meant the New Labour century. How does that look in 2020?

So now is exactly the right time for One Nation Conservatives to think hard and set up debates. After the economic paper our next publication will be on social mobility, how we can bring it back, and why we must not think about it in traditional terms. Following that we will be publishing a paper on the environment, showing how capitalism is not the enemy of achieving carbon New Zero, but the only way of reaching it.

Future papers will look at Britain’s place in the world, covering trade and aid, and specifically what the new configuration of the Foreign Office and DfId offers in the realm of making our aid spending (which One Nation Conservatives strongly support) more effective in the future. We will also be taking a hard look at schools and what they can do better to spread opportunity, and at the new world of work.

It is very pleasing that all cohorts of the Parliamentary party have contributed to these papers. Former Ministers have worked with many members of the 2019 intake on the individual ideas, proving that there is no shortage of new thinking on the back benches, and that One Nation ideas are alive and well in the rising generations within the party.

Whether or not you think of yourself as a One Nation Conservative, I hope you will welcome the fact that those of us who are in that tradition want to contribute publicly to the key debates that will dominate the coming decade. The public will of course judge the Government mainly on its actions. But every political party needs to demonstrate that it can apply its principles to new circumstances. In a world that changes as fast as this one constant intellectual regeneration should be our goal. The One Nation recovery papers are a contribution to that.