25 questions about (another) early general election – and the horror show it could be for the Conservatives

The more one thinks about it, the more problematic one becomes.

I wrote in the Times last August about Brexit that “the most likely cathartic event is neither a new prime minister nor a second referendum but a general election”.  Of which there is talk again in the Westminster Village.  William Hague is reportedly saying that the media is underestimating the chances of a poll.

As Mark Wallace points out, the former Foreign Secretary pressed for an election before Theresa May obtained one in 2017.  We know how that turned out.

For the record, this site believed that she’d increase her majority, once she called it.  But we were very dubious about her calling the poll in the first place.  We take the same view now (as may Hague).  For although an election could become unavoidable before too long, believing that one could happen isn’t the same as thinking it should happen.  Here are some questions that help illustrate why.

  • What would the manifesto say about Brexit?
  • If it repackaged Theresa May’s deal, how would Conservative MPs who believe that No Deal is now inevitable, or back Norway Plus, or a Canada-type deal, or a second referendum, respond?
  • If it didn’t propose ruling out No Deal, what would the Cabinet group headed by Philip Hammond say and do?
  • If it did rule out No Deal, what would the Cabinet members who backed Leave in the EU referendum, plus Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt, do?
  • Would the manifesto rule out extending Article 50?
  • How would May go about seeking to prevent a 1997-election type revolt – that time round, it was about ruling out joining the Euro – from Leavers?  Would she be prepared to bar the candidacies of hardline pro-Leave MPs?
  • By the same token, would she be prepared to bar the candidacies of their pro-Remain equivalents?
  • How would the Party handle Associations seeking to deselect their MPs?
  • What would the manifesto say about everything else bar Brexit?  The spending review?  Tax?  Social care?  Universal Credit?  Reducing net migration “to the tens of thousands”?  Health and food and lifestyle?  Selective schools?  Knife crime?  The pursuit of British servicemen through the courts?  Tuition fees?  Home ownership? HS2?  And what would it say about how Britain should be different after Brexit?
  • In particular, what would it say about Scotland, and what role would Ruth Davidson and/or Scottish Conservative MPs have in drawing up the contents, if any, especially about fishing?
  • What’s to stop the election turning into one on other matters than Brexit entirely, as the last one did?
  • Would the Party run candidates against the DUP in Northern Ireland?
  • Who would run the manifesto process – since Chris Skidmore, who was in charge of the Party’s policy review, has now been made a Minister and not replaced?
  • Would the Pickles review recommendations for drawing up the next Conservative manifesto be implemented – in other words, would senior Ministers play a major part in overseeing it?
  • Who would write it?
  • Since successive Party leaders have outsourced the running of recent election campaigns, who would run this one?  (Labour’s team from last time round would presumably remain much the same.)
  • Since Lynton Crosby is reported to be advising Boris Johnson, how could he return to CCHQ to spearhead a campaign?
  • Would such a solution be desirable anyway, given the Crosby/Textor/Messina contribution to the failure of the last campaign?
  • Even if it was, would Crosby accept this poisoned chalice in any event?
  • And why would anyone else do so, either – such as James Kanagasooriam?  Dominic Cummings?  (Who wouldn’t be asked anyway.)
  • In the absence of anyone else, has CCHQ really got the capacity to run an election campaign in-house, especially at almost no notice?
  • Given almost no notice, is CCHQ in a position to identify the right target seats?
  • If it can, doesn’t it need an equivalent of Team 2015 to help campaign in them and canvass them?  (And there isn’t one.)
  • Even if there was one, is the prospect of a Corbyn Government enough to get Party activists out campaigning, or will disillusion with the May Government hold them back?
  • What’s the answer to the same question when applied to donors?

And that’s all more or less off the top of my head.  There will be many more questions and better ones too.

P.S: And before you ask, the Fixed Terms Parliament Act isn’t an insuperable barrier to an election, as the events of 2017 proved.

P.P.S: The Prime Minister has of course promised recently, as before the 2017 poll, that she definitely won’t seek one…

Nick Hargrave: In an age of post-truth politics, moderate politicians must prepare to work across party lines

I have reluctantly concluded that there needs to be greater regulation of the veracity of claims made by registered participants in political campaigns.

Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.

It’s a common trope that we live in an age of post-truth politics. It increasingly appears that politicians have impunity to say things that are either demonstrably false or – more often in the UK at least – promise a future that is not supported by a rational reading of the evidence at hand.

The EU referendum and the subsequent process after serve as good exhibits for the prosecution. The Leave side of the fence is probably the more egregious with the £350 million red bus, the promises that a free trade deal with the EU would be the easiest such undertaking ever and – most pressingly now – denunciations of those who suggest that a ‘No Deal’ Brexit would come with a cost.

The Remain side of the divide is not without fault either though; lest we forget the ‘punishment budget’ that never happened, the pre-referendum modelling on the impact of the vote that ludicrously assumed no policy response from the Bank of England – not to mention every piece of bad economic news now being held up as a ‘told you so’ with no examination of whether the real cause is Brexit or not.

We should not of course  hark back to a mythical golden era where those with power dispassionately handed down truth to the people. From the hagiographical Anglo Saxon Chronicle in the ninth century to the 1945 General Election campaign, where our wartime hero, Winston Churchill, said that a British Gestapo would be needed to implement Labour’s policies – politicians of the day have always presented their interpretation of the truth to try and win support.

It is all a matter of degrees. But nonetheless it does feel like something has changed for the worse in politics in recent years. Certainly since the extension of the franchise in the nineteenth century, I do not think there has been a period in modern British history where politicians pay such scant regard to objective evidence and where the general public are willing to suspend disbelief in response.

The causes for this are well-rehearsed enough; the explosion of the internet in the past 20 years that has given the charlatan and the populist an unvetted voice and forced ‘moderate’ politicians to engage in an arms race to catch up; a declining trust in traditional sources of authority because of the profound economic effects of the financial crisis, globalisation and automation; the exponential growth of data, meaning that it’s easier to build a surface argument no matter how flimsy; a news cycle that moves so quickly that the best and speediest rebuttal in the world still comes too late; an increasing divide on values which means people shut out information that they don’t want to hear.

Less well tested is how we might rectify the situation.

There are two options. We can accept that, short of banning the internet and censoring political discourse, there is very little we can do. We are at the mercy of events and will have to accept a mid twenty-first century characterised by demagogues winning elections and referendums, chaotic policy making, a gradual erosion of the global rules-based order – with evidence only coming back into vogue after a series of shocks and recessions that lead us to see the error of our ways.

There is another school of thought though, which I much prefer – if only because the alternative is unlikely to be peaceful or economically stable. While there is no silver bullet, there are certainly things we can and should do to raise the standard of political debate in this country.
First, we need better politicians who the public are willing to trust in a face-off with the charlatans of the hour. Part of this is about getting people who have genuinely achieved things outside of Westminster into the Commons, and speak with gravitas and knowledge of what the real world is like. We could frankly do with more Andy Streets and Geoffrey Cox’s going into the frontline.

But there is more to it than that. We should also be honest that self-defined moderate politicians of this era stick to the line too much, and are obsessed with repeating back what they think people want to hear. As someone who spent several years in the bowels of Downing Street and Conservative Campaign HQ, raised on a diet of Clinton 1992 and Blair 1997 as model campaigns, this has been a humbling and gradual realisation. Most effective public policy is difficult and involves trade-offs; campaigning is very different to governing.

There is no better illustration of this than the current mess we have reached in the implementation of Brexit where our political leaders were not honest about the compromises needed to give practical effect to the referendum result. The temptation to boil political communications down to a form of cereal marketing will always be there. But I suspect that future leaders who level that there are no moral absolutes or easy answers will do better than is commonly supposed; the electorate are many things but they are not stupid.

Second, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there needs to be greater regulation of the veracity of claims made by registered participants in political campaigns. There are important free speech considerations here and unregistered mendacious participants will still slip through the cracks online. But a more developed regulatory regime would nonetheless remind mainstream politicians that they should not stoop to this level.   One could, for example, trial a role for the Advertising Standards Authority – who currently cannot adjudicate complaints and impose sanctions on electoral material – in an upcoming campaign in the UK.

Finally, and perhaps a little uncomfortably, we have to get better at working on difficult issues across traditional party lines. If we are constantly saying the other side have nothing good to impart then there are consequences. The electorate do not know who to believe. They think everyone is as bad as each other. The door is opened to those who take the easy way out and propose mythical ‘unicorns’ rather than evidence-based solutions. Cross-party coalitions on issues such as fixing social care, an honest conversation about the right balance of tax and spend to fund twenty-first century public services – or dare I say it implementing a version of Brexit that respects the narrow mandate of the referendum – would lend credibility to viewpoints because they don’t look politically driven.

Some will of course cry ‘establishment stitch-up’ and ‘Westminster cartel at its best’. It will be the responsibility of the moderate politicians of the future to demonstrate that evidence, and developed understanding of the issues at hand, remain the most reliable route to improved living standards and a better tomorrow.

Dan Watkins: Six reasons why the Conservatives deserved to win that no confidence vote yesterday

It’s not hard to find reasons to be frustrated with the Government, but we are still delivering for the British people.

Dan Watkins was a three-time Conservative Parliamentary Candidate in Tooting and now campaigns with Kent Conservatives.

Everything is dominated by Brexit at present, but behind the scenes the Government is still continuing to deliver the Conservative’s domestic policies, much to the benefit of the British people. So here are six reasons why the country should be positive that the Government survived the vote of no confidence.

Tackling the Deficit

We should never forget that when we came to power in 2010, the Government couldn’t afford to pay for its public services and was building up a colossal amount of debt which future generations would have to pay. Years of spending restraint, combined with healthy growth of the economy, mean that Britain’s deficit is less that a fifth of what it was and debt as a share of the economy is coming down every year.
While we remain in power, the public finances stay in balance, reducing debt and allowing us to spend less on interest and more on public services.

Improving School Standards

Through the past eight years we have been reforming teaching, boosting Academies and opening Free Schools. We know these reforms are working because school standards are getting better and better, as measured by Ofsted, as well as international league tables, which we are steadily climbing. This year will see more Free Schools open and more Academies created, ensuring more children go to outstanding schools and receive a world-class education.

Boosting NHS Funding

The NHS is a huge organisation with a huge budget. As the population gets older, the demands upon it increase and the only way we can continue to fund its expansion is by growing the economy and investing those extra tax receipts into it. We have just detailed our Long Term NHS Plan, but it requires an extra £20 billion pa and this is only possible to find if we keep growing the economy. Another Labour-led recession would stop this extra funding dead in its tracks.

Creating an Enterprise Economy

From the moment we took office in 2010, the Conservatives have been making Britain the most business-friendly economy in the world. We have made it easier to start a company and to employ staff, cut business taxes and invested in research and development to support our high growth sectors such as creative, life sciences, automotive and more. Britain has been assessed by Forbes as the best country in the world to start a business. Every year we remain in Government is another year when Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour can’t undo our good work.

Protecting the Environment

Less heralded than other areas perhaps, but the results of our policies in energy and the environment have yielded excellent results. Renewal energy has expanded dramatically, carbon emissions have been slashed, plastic pollution is being tackled with radical action, and animals at home and abroad have won new protections. Michael Gove and DEFRA have more initiatives underway this year which will ensure that we continue to lead the international community on animal welfare and cleaning the environment.

Helping People into Work

Work is the bedrock of living a fulfilling life and this Government has done more than any other to give more people the opportunity to work. While welfare reforms have ensured that work always pays, the National Living Wage ensures that work pays even more.
Record numbers of people have been lifted out of the lowest paid work and the evidence shows that policies like Universal Credit help many more long-term unemployed into jobs. We need to have fully rolled out and bedded-in these initiatives before Labour get to power, so that it is much harder for them to reverse them.

At the present time, it’s not hard to find reasons to be frustrated with the Government, and indeed Parliament more generally, but when we’re out on the doorsteps campaigning, let’s be clear that the Conservatives are still delivering for the British people.

“No-one voted for Brexit to become poorer.” Really? We vote to deny ourselves money all the time.

Security, cohesion, integration, solidarity: all are intangible. But we pay – literally – to gain them. Why single out self-government?

Philip Hammond may have coined the phrase – an appropriate use of the term, in this case.  “No-one voted to become poorer or less secure,” he told the Conservative Party Conference in 2016, less than six months after the Brexit referendum vote.  As others have taken those words up, the last three have tended to drop off it.  But was he right?

Obviously, even as senior a Minister as the Chancellor cannot have read the minds of all 17 million plus of those who backed Leave – the largest number of people who have ever voted for anything in a British poll.  But let us leave the point there, and turn to his own department’s forecasts.  The Treasury’s median long-term estimate is that a WTO-based outcome would reduce cumulative growth over 15 years from about 25 per cent to about 17 per cent.  In other words, GDP would, under this scenario, be eight per cent lower than it would otherwise be.  It would rise more slowly, not fall.

So even the Treasury, the high temple of Remain, doesn’t expect us to become poorer – but rather, less rich than we would otherwise be.  You may counter that this lost growth would mean lost wages and tax receipts, lower spending and higher tax.  Or that some short-term forecasts do suggest that we will become poorer this year in the event of No Deal.  (The CBI is pushing a very-worst-case scenario today.)

We could come back by pouring cold water on all such forecasts, starting with George Osborne’s referendum campaign projections of an “immediate” recession, half a million more people unemployed, and house prices 18 per cent lower than they would otherwise have been.  Instead, the economy grew, unemployment fell and house prices rose.  But rather than vanish into a statistical snowstorm, we ask our readers to view Hammond’s statement from a different angle – two angles, to be precise.

The first is from the Left.  Trident costs the taxpayer roughly £2 billion a year.  That money could instead be spent on tax cuts or public services.  Very many on the Left (and some on the Right) argue that it should be.  They say that we don’t use Trident, wouldn’t ever use it, shouldn’t ever use it.  The cash should go instead on schools or hospitals or benefits or childcare.

Next, mull an argument from the Right.  Overseas aid comes at a price of about £14 billion annually.  Again, that money could be spent on public services or tax cuts – or, the Right being the Right, on debt repayment.  A lot of people on it – and a sprinkling on the Left – hold that development aid is wasted or stolen and perverts incentives and is subject to the law of unintended consequences.

Now stand back from the fray, and ponder a stubborn fact.  Voters consistently back Trident and aid.  No, that’s not quite right.  Rather, put it this way: voters consistently return governments committed to both.  Then turn to another subject to illustrate the same point.

Pro-migration campaigners argue that it makes us richer – both overall and per head.  Others dispute that claim.  Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that those campaigners are right.  Even if every single voter could be persuaded of this, there is reason to doubt that all of them would come round to wanting higher rather than lower migration.  Very many would believe that there would still be costs in some places to higher immigration – in terms, for example, of pressure on housing.  And then there is the i-word: integration.

At which point, it is worth standing back from Hammond’s statement, and asking not whether he was right or wrong, but what he actually meant – or implied.  Who is the “no-one” in question?  Who are those to whom he glancingly refers?  Obviously, the British people.  But that’s a term which invites further thought.

In one sense, the British people is a single entity; in another, it is lots of groups of people, breaking down in turn into families and individuals.  Many of them help to pay for others.  Older people tend not to use schools, but they help to fund them.  Younger people use the NHS less than older ones, but they help to pay for it.  Londoners, some say, subsidise the rest of the UK.  And so on and so forth.

Readers will see where all this is going.  At each election, we vote to “make ourselves poorer”, in the sense of becoming less rich than we otherwise would be.  We plump for Trident because we worry about our security (to reprise the Chancellor’s word); or for lower migration because we think it will mean more cohesion, or for overseas aid because of solidarity with those who suffer. We vote to fund public services we don’t use and parts of the country we don’t live in.  Security, cohesion, solidarity: these are intangibles.  They can’t be touched or smelled or tasted – seen or heard.  They may lead to material gains, but they are not material themselves.  None comes with a price tag, but all have value.

Let’s end by illustrating the point.  John Hume was fond of quoting his anti-sectarian father, who used to say: “you can’t eat a flag”.  True – and anyone who has tried to do so has presumably been disappointed.  But the reverse also applies.  No-one, we suspect, has ever sung: “I vow to thee, my breakfast.”  Those intangibles – such as self-government, to cite another – matter.  From one point of view, the desire for the last is a form of solidarity or even for, to use a more EU-ish word, subsidiarity.

You can properly reply that self-government and patriotism aren’t the same thing, or even that they don’t overlap at all.  So be it.  What you can’t do, this site believes, is claim that Brexit alone, uniquely, exceptionally, will make us less rich than we otherwise would be (if it does so at all).  By commission, by omission, in the ballot booth and out of it, we opt to do this all the time – almost without noticing.

Lee Rowley: Brexit is big. But our politics is bigger – and I say that as a committed Leaver. Here are some ideas to boost it.

Remainers and Brexiteers alike must recognise the politicians are stuck in an ever-decreasing circle of fervour, hyperbole and hysteria.

Lee Rowley is MP for North East Derbyshire, and Co-Chair of FREER.

Brexit, Brexit, Brexit.  Has there ever been a time when one subject so overwhelmed the political debate in our country?  Where one political Death Star loomed over every facet of public policy to the point where, at least for the political class, nothing else appears to matter?

The last few months have felt as though we’ve entered some shadow realm where our relationship with Europe has obliterated UK politics.  Brexit gnaws away at the most reasonable people, engulfs even the most tangential subjects and saps the life out of even the most joyful of conversations – and I say this as a committed Brexiteer.  Even Christmas was not immune.  MPs were told to use the festive period to reconsider the Prime Minister’s deal as if an over-indulgence of mince pies and sherry would result in a sudden epiphany that it was, somehow, acceptable after all.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have as strong a view on Brexit as the next person (perhaps even more so than many!).  Yet Remainers and Brexiteers alike must recognise the politicians are stuck in an ever-decreasing circle of fervour, hyperbole and hysteria.  And all the while, those outside the bubble tire of the indulgence of the political class.  The people made a decision two and a half years ago.  And they are bored of politicians trying to frustrate it.

The people are completely right – and for two reasons.  First, because we’ve got to honour the referendum result.  Second, and just as importantly, they are right because we’ve got to move on.  As a Party, there is so much that we have to do and, relatively, so little time to do it.  Not just the day-to-day responsibility of government, which needs continuous attention, but also because we’ve also got properly to wrestle with the underlying bigger issues which are going to determine whether we continue in government, whether we have the right answers to future challenges and whether, crucially, we can defeat the resurrected zombie of 1980s socialism.

So as the meaningful vote debate gets underway again, here is an article that doesn’t primarily focus on the EU for a change.  And here are six big issues that need our urgent attention when we, finally, move on from Brexit.

First, we’ve got to accept that there is a massive change coming in the way we live, work and play through technology – and that needs better thought and consideration than we’ve managed to date.  Mark Wallace was absolutely right a few days ago when he talked about the need to embrace technology and the good that it can bring for society.  Yet, more importantly, that change is coming anyway – and it is an abdication of responsibility if we don’t engage properly.  A recent report suggested that in the next 20 years, seven million jobs will be lost – one in every five in the country.  If the UK gets its act together, a similar number (or even more) could be created.  But we need to think it through.  And most people in Westminster still don’t even know what machine learning is.

Second, we’ve got to stop banning things.  As Conservatives, we have a guilty pleasure for paternalism; our inner restraints occasionally loosen as we believe people need to be saved from themselves.  We know we shouldn’t, but we do.  Yet, that isn’t what our mission is about.  Freedom is what sets us apart from the socialism – and that includes the freedom to make mistakes as well as take opportunities.  If, as a party, we really believe in this principle then we have to have the hard conversations with the country about why government can’t do everything, not just bask in a warm glow of where it can.  If we don’t make a clearer case about our belief in people, then we become a pale pastiche of Labour.  And, for those who believe that people over-indulge too much on sugary treats already, why would people choose the Diet Coke version of nannying government when they can have the full fat one from Jeremy Corbyn?

Third, we’ve got to stop the money arms race with Labour on public services.  As a Conservative, I believe in strong public services which help people up, support them when they need and make our country safer and secure.  You need money to do that.  But it isn’t an end in itself.  Spending an arbitrary number on education or increasing the health budget by a similarly arbitrary figure focusing on the wrong thing.  Corbyn is the one fixated on inputs and processes.  We should care only about the transformation money can bring and the outcomes it delivers.  Stop talking in billions.  Start talking about what we want to do and what we want to achieve by when.  How to raise the number of children getting world class education.  How to improve cancer outcomes.  How to connect people in the north by rail.  Focus the debate on outcomes or we will lose.

Fourth, we are going to have to have a proper discussion about what we want government to do in the future.  Demographic change, increasing demand and increasing complexity in health and social care are all going to strain public budgets in the coming decades.  Some assessments suggest the NHS is going to need another £50 billion.  The ONS thinks that there will be another eight million people over 65 in the UK in 50 years’ time.  It’s fantastic news that we are living longer but it also requires us to seriously reform our public services to avoid us becoming a national care home with a country attached to it.  People have a right to expect their government to come up with solutions and to be able to pay for it.  We need a clearer conversation with the public and a strong reforming mission as we renew in Government in the run-up to 2022.

Fifth, we are going to have to work out how we restore democracy.  Quite simply, the way in which we approach decision-making is stuck in the 1990s.  Political manifestoes declare lofty ambitions once every five years and then politicians disappear off to squabble about them.  We are awash in national and local consultations perpetuating a thin veneer of public involvement, followed usually by politicians doing whatever they want anyway.  A hundred years ago, politics was the practice of educated people taking decisions for the uneducated.  Absolutely rightly, no longer.  Today, politics should be a continuous process of discussion, debate and interaction with everyone – where that interaction matters.  And it will need to be a more local conversation than before which, by default, means accepting that services will be delivered differently in different places.  Democracy is fragile.  And we need to renew it.

Finally, we are going to have to learn how to “deliver” in government.  Another little commented national scandal is the continuing inability, across all parties, of government to function.  Carillion showed the limits of poorly structured services – not because private enterprise doesn’t work (far from it) but because it wasn’t set up properly.  Sitting on the Public Accounts Committee every week, I hear horror stories of billions lost through poor Government administration and projects, both public and private.  And the Civil Service leadership glides effortlessly through whatever screw-ups occur, no matter what.  Real reform of government requires proper leadership, a proper understanding of change management and deliverers who are actually held to account.  We aren’t even trying at the moment.

So, yes, Brexit is big.  But other things are bigger.  Taken together, these are the issues which will transcend individual portfolios and departments; the quiet problems which will monster us if we start thinking about them too late.  So, this week, as Brexit again sucks all the oxygen out of the room, remember this: we are essentially fighting over a foreign policy pivot and a future trading relationship.  Vast and existential they certainly are.  Yet at some point the Brexit fog will lift.  And, if we haven’t started to consider the underlying bigger challenges we face, then our party will be caught wanting.  More importantly, our country will be poorer.  And that’s a much bigger problem than whether flights will take off on 30th March (spoiler alert: they will).  Time to broaden our conversation.

Rebecca Lowe: Why the taxpayer should fund space exploration

There is a fundamental human need and desire to know more about the universe, to engage with it, to play our part and explore and achieve.

Rebecca Lowe is Director of FREER — a new initiative promoting economic and social liberalism, based at the IEA, where she is a Research Fellow. 

Revelling in things that are non-quantifiably, hard-to-explain, valuable for their own sake is one of the great features of being human. For me, one of these things is an interest in space. Rockets, stars, impossible questions about infinity — you name it, I’m a sucker for it. Sure, there are great practical reasons to learn about all this. But space is also just, well, exciting and wonderful and frightening and beautiful — all of those slightly embarrassing, overly emotional words — in itself. One of my favourite childhood memories is looking at the stars with my dad; I rarely do so these days without thinking about and missing him. He loved the idea and reality of space even more than me.

Like most of us, though, I don’t make enough time for my less pragmatic interests. I’m never going to be an astronaut or an astronomer, so I don’t prioritise reading or thinking about their domain. Having disbanded my usual priorities over the Christmas break, however, I read the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s excellent 2013 book about his three missions in space and what he’s learnt from them. It convinced me that space exploration can be used as an exemplar point for many standard arguments within the realm of politics and policy. (Or, yes, maybe I just want to prolong the holidays and think about this stuff some more.)

Hadfield spends a great deal of the book — both explicitly and implicitly — justifying the existence of the Canadian space programme. Its enterprises are, unsurprisingly, vastly costly to the taxpayer. He does a great job: emphasising the educational benefits, defence and geopolitical gains, advances brought to medical science thanks to astronauts’ experimentation, and so much more. The man is a (space)walking example of why space travel is important. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that taxpayers should fund it, does it? At the least, it doesn’t tell us anything about the extent to which they should.

This leads to a crucial yet overlooked problem. We don’t spend enough time truly justifying taxpayer expense. Governments don’t. Policy-thinkers don’t. Sure, people do sums, and make clever arguments. But, too often, we’re left dependent on idealised aggregate answers, such as estimates of the welfare-maximising level of government spending as a proportion of GDP, and the like. The personal tax burden here is at its highest for decades, yet we rarely hear an acceptance of that truth, never mind concerns about it. And without that acceptance and those concerns, we can’t get down to the important work of determining what should indeed be paid for by the taxpayer — and how this changes over time.

There are two main reasons why things might genuinely need to be funded in this way. The first is that they are essential — or justifiably desirable — yet might not otherwise come about. This is usually termed along the lines of a ‘public good’ argument: we won’t each voluntarily choose to pay for a proper nationwide road system, so the state had better tax people and set it up for them, and so on. It’s probably the case that too many things are lumped into this reasoning, but it surely stands regarding some necessities. The second reason is that these are things that the state (read taxpayer) ’should’ fund, for other reasons aside from (or on top of) necessity of provision, often on the grounds of principle. These are much trickier, and include examples ranging from “education is tainted by the profit motive”, to “we can’t trust our national security to a motley band of foreign mercenaries”.

Space travel is almost always funded by the taxpayer — certainly outside of America — and the usual ‘argument’ given is that it has to be: that it wouldn’t happen otherwise. This argument depends on two assumptions: that space travel has to (or should) happen, and that there is no other solution than state funding. For now, let’s give the first assumption the benefit of the doubt. Hadfield et al make a convincing case, not least in terms of the twenty first-century space-race context. If a drone can stop an airport, just imagine what an enemy country could do with modern space power. The proponents of ’space diplomacy’ are currently seeking to counter the rise of ‘space militarism’ — this is not a battle we can realistically ignore.

But to what extent should this be funded through general taxation? Space X and Virgin Galactic are becoming household names, and many other private space companies are making leaps and bounds. These leaps are nowhere near Neil Armstrong’s yet, however. Sure, the private sector is driving the UK’s capacities in this area: Gabriel Elefteriu, a space-policy expert, points out that the UK’s ‘domestic space champions include Inmarsat, one the of world’s largest satellite operators, and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), the world’s leading small-satellite manufacturer’. But the truth is that nobody’s getting to the moon without vast amounts of state support, and even the most successful private space companies tend to depend on state grants, and have the incentive of big (American) government contracts. The recent Lunar X Prize competition proved quite how expensive participating in the field is — this neat MIT article explains that the un-won $20 million prize was ‘actually relatively little money: to have any chance at winning, teams found, they needed much more’.

Yes, as private companies succeed, more investors will come to join the brave early adopters. Yes, we should thank the rich people who advance science for all of us by blowing their money on their far-off dreams of joining Branson or Musk in space. Yes, competition will drive up standards and push down costs. But, for now, it’s hard not to accept that space travel is dependent on the Government committing our hard-earned cash.

The best arguments for this emphasise our need to be protected through advances in defence capabilities, ranging from military to medical technology. But they also respond to that fundamental interest — that human need and desire — to know more about the universe, to engage with it, to play our part and explore and achieve. To value knowledge in itself, and our world for what it is. If we agree to take part in organised society, and therefore recognise that the state has a role to play in our lives, then it seems as if space exploration is a good that the state can enable, for the benefit of all mankind. Of course, the level of spending on this still needs to be justified, and we must continue to keep assessing its relative importance. But there’s something about space that just won’t go away.

Howard Flight: Finding taxpayers better value for money

What is needed is professional, third party review and analysis of expenditure, department by department, cutting out duplication and waste.

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasur

Political Parties should be, and usually are, known for what they believe in; voters can, therefore, reasonably expect governments to focus on their Party’s territories of conviction and objectives. For the Conservative Party, these territories have comprised of supporting the national interest; creating a meritocracy and equality of opportunity; sustaining a homeowning democracy; backing free markets and lower taxation, and supporting businesses and especially small business. I add to this a less obvious objective, but crucial to achieving the other objectives: achieving good value from the taxes raised.

I suspect the Party’s reputation for the above objectives is holding up better than the media would expect; but there is clearly work to be done in housing to unblock supply, allowing markets to then achieve prices which are affordable to buyers.

A Conservative Government has also allowed increases in taxation – currently representing 34.6 per cent of GDP compared with 30 per cent in the 1990’s, when we are supposed to be the Party of lower taxation.

Between 2000 and 2004, I was Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I was then asked to organise a major review of how taxes were spent and the extent to which citizens were getting poor or good value for their taxes. I was able to organise some 50 senior professionals to undertake analysis of public expenditure in each of the ministerial departments and in local government. We ended up with a total figure for potential tax saving through measures to improve taxpayer value of around £80 billion per annum.

Over the last nine years, the Government has done a reasonably good job in constraining public spending in some areas and particularly in local government; but in the other non-constrained areas, of which the NHS is the giant, spending has again escalated.

What is needed is professional, third party review and analysis of expenditure, department by department, cutting out duplication and waste. One of the worst cases of waste which could have been avoided was the £18 billion write off for the failed NHS Systems Programme, which failed for the simple reason of not building up needs and programmes from existing grass root activities, but rather trying unsuccessfully to impose a programme from above.

Inevitably, some of the value-achieving decisions have to be political: what is the Government doing which would be better if it weren’t done? A significant amount of the increase in public spending of recent years has also resulted from government getting involved in areas that arguably it never should.

It is also unfortunate that the positive achievements of taxpayer value over the last decade have been tarred with the mistaken concept of painful austerity. We should be talking more about taxpayer value, and explain that it is in the interest of citizens both to get good value for the taxes they have to pay, and potentially lower taxes as the result of better spending efficiencies.

May must ensure that increases in NHS spending are tied to outcomes

It’s a politically sensitive subject and the Government has a lot on its plate, but the Treasury is right to be concerned with ensuring value for money.

Today’s Financial Times reports that a new row is brewing between numbers Ten and Eleven Downing Street over Theresa May’s plans for extra NHS spending.

According to the paper, the Treasury is worried that the Prime Minister is pushing ahead with a £20 billion ‘reform’ plan which doesn’t actually secure adequate commitments to deliver savings and value for money.

Others have accused May of ‘displacement activity’, or needlessly dividing the Government’s focus in the crucial weeks before Britain’s departure from the European Union. But the Treasury complaint deserves scrutiny, because it illustrates the unhappy state of the will to healthcare reform in today’s Conservative Party.

Thanks in no small part to Dominic Cummings, who made NHS spending a central focus of the Leave campaign, there is now a consensus in favour of more of it which spans the Tories from the traditionally pro-NHS left to the usually reform-minded, but currently Brexit-focused, right.

By contrast, there is nobody talking seriously about major reforms to how the Health Service operates. Even Liz Truss, busily staking her claim to the mantle of the Cabinet’s most enthusiastic free-market reformer, hasn’t unveiled a plan for the NHS.

Perhaps this ought not to surprise us. Enthusiasm for healthcare reform historically comes in cycles, with the likes of Ken Clarke, Alan Milburn, and Andrew Lansley interspersed amongst Secretaries of State who take a more managerial approach. Jeremy Hunt, despite is high-profile clash with the doctors’ union, was one of the latter.

There are several reasons good reasons why Conservatives might be cautious of any ambitious programme for the NHS. Taking a bold stance on social care, which is subject to very similar pressures, arguably cost the Party its first comfortable majority in thirty years. Likewise the ill-fated Lansley reforms are still fresh in the memory and scarcely likely to motivate people to dip their toe in that particular pool.

Another factor, in light of a looming leadership election and the prospect of an election before 2022, is that Conservative members and voters alike are older than the average citizen, and likely to be unenthusiastic about disruption to health or social care.

Despite this, however, the Treasury’s concerns still need answering. ‘Spending more money’ is not an adequate substitute for an actual policy agenda, at least on the right, and passing the buck for serious reform to the next political generation will only make that reform much more difficult – and possibly painful – when its time comes.

Nick Hargrave: The Conservative split is coming. Indeed, it is already here. Unless…

Perhaps, against all the odds, we will find a way of muddling through and preserve our broad church for a time after the era of Brexit has passed.

Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.

My career in backroom politics began in an institution called the Conservative Research Department. Depending on how charitable your view of professional politics is, CRD can either be viewed as the meritocratic engine room of the Tory machine that in the past century has produced more Cabinet ministers than any public school or Oxbridge college; or it can be seen as an elitist playground of Westminster bubblery that shows how remote the mindset of SW1 is from people in the country at large.

Fortunately, that is not up for debate in this column. The reason I mention it is because its interview process is reflective of the tension that sits at the heart of the Conservative Party. The way in which its leading participants react to this tension will determine whether it continues to exist in its current form.

The first question every CRD interviewee is asked upon sitting down is the immortal line: ‘why are you a Conservative’?’ As someone who interviewed more potential staffers over the years than I care to remember, it is a question with the capacity to flummox even the most articulate applicant and has done so throughout the ages.

It’s a brilliant interview question because there is no perfect answer. There are some unacceptable answers that will meet with a stony reception such as that enterprise should not exist or that the concept of a British nation is entirely without merit. But other than that, the tent is broad and the floor is yours. Acceptable answers include but are not limited to: a belief in personal freedom and liberty; a general love for the nation, its institutions and traditions; backing business and free enterprise; low taxes; wanting government to get out of the way; thinking government should focus its energy on programmes that give people the opportunity to make the most of their talents; aspiration; social mobility; the family; a hand up but not a hand out; supporting our armed forces; localism and community; a deep scepticism to the bureaucracy of the European Union and many more things besides.

The truth is this: conservatism is really a disposition rather than an ideology. It is a complicated web of values rooted in the free market and nation state that have fused together as a product of our national history, British level-headedness, a sense that getting things done in Government beats the pompous purity of Opposition – reinforced and helped along by the electoral system of first past the post. If the delicate web of values can be condensed into a simple sentence it is only this: a belief that change is inevitable and often beneficial but it must be managed organically and in accordance with the traditions of the country.

That at least would have been the historic definition. But the United Kingdom’s place with the European Union has gnawed away at this sense of unity for as long as I have been alive. It is the perfect juxtaposition of the competing values of national identity and economic security. And it’s been given new life by a worldwide reassessment of capitalism and nationalism in the displacing effects of a global market, a new era of digital discourse where the old give and take seems irrelevant – and David Cameron’s decision to get out of a political bind in 2013 by bringing this question to a head in a referendum. All despite the fact that our country is constitutionally ill-equipped to deal with direct democracy.

But we are where we are, the genie is out of the bottle and there is no point pretending that a second referendum will make this go away. The people are boss; they voted for Britain to leave the European Union and it must be implemented. We should also accept that, despite the best will in the world and no matter what clever solution is arrived at in the next few months, the debate about Brexit isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

There is no magical answer – whether compromise or extreme – that will suddenly make the country think this is dispatched and done. The only thing that could conceivably change the national conversation any time soon is a new arc of politics around a global recession, a global security incident or something else out of left-field and probably deeply unpleasant; and as corrosive and boring as Brexit is to our political culture, I would take it any day over those options.

Once you accept this premise, the path ahead for the Conservative Party becomes a little clearer. There are only three ways to go on the road ahead.

We can have a ‘soft split’, more likely if the Deal does somehow gets passed. We morph after March into an explicitly protectionist and nationalist party as a form of catharsis to what the then previous Prime Minister, Theresa May, agreed. This will be a popular position in some parts of Britain and it is where the bulk of our membership is. But it has little future in our capital city, other metropolitan areas and – in my view at least – it will provide diminishing returns over time with the voters of tomorrow. This scenario inevitably sees us becoming the ‘We Shouldn’t Have Signed the Deal’ party. There are many branching histories to this, but I think most of them end up with a Labour Government by 2022.

We can have a ‘hard split’ where the Conservative Party becomes separate political entities over Brexit-defined lines; the parliamentary flux over the next few weeks makes this a possible outcome. Dispassionately, if the alternative is chaos, there might merit to this proposal if the moderate Conservative faction were to find common cause with the moderate Labour one to deliver an orderly Brexit . But, again, the only way it doesn’t lead to a hard-left Jeremy Corbyn Government is if tribal loyalties were to be left behind on both sides. I am yet to be convinced.

Or, against all the odds, we find a way of muddling through and preserve our broad church for a time after the historical era of Brexit has passed (with an inevitable peeling off of some MPs on the extremes). To do this, the party can only do one thing. It has to come to its senses and decide an imperfect compromise – whether the PM’s current deal or the Norway option as a backup – is the best long-term bet for our political family and national unity. You would need a leader of exceptional political skill to make this argument given where we have got to now. Any takers?

Nicky Morgan: The only credible alternative plan is Norway Plus. And that may well be what Parliament ends up supporting.

But it could take the ruling out of all other options before we get there. And if MPs ends up reaching a consensus view, then the Government will have to adopt it.

Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.

Getting back to my constituency and away from Westminster is very welcome at the moment. A weekend of Christmas tree festivals, Santa Fun Runs and shop window competitions is a good reminder that life does go on – even if Westminster politics feels as if it is in melt-down. I did wonder for a moment if, for the same reason, the Prime Minister might decide that Argentina is a good place to move to, and that we might not see her again in SW1 after the G20 summit.

But amidst the snow scenes and flashing lights, Brexit is never far away. And it is noticeable this year that constituents who would never normally comment on political events are all wanting reassurances from their MP about where the negotiation and parliamentary process is headed. I wish I could provide more guidance.

This is aside from the hundreds of e-mails I’m now receiving from constituents which cover every conceivable shade of opinion on Brexit – confirming just what a divided country we still are on this critical issue. On Friday morning a constituent assailed me with: ‘Are we doomed, Mrs Morgan?’ I replied that we were not, and that there would be a way through the apparent impasse. He looked unconvinced, and said that he has been explaining Brexit as being like a jam doughnut…the trouble being that at the moment it looks as if we have the half without the jam in.

But wasn’t it always going to be the case that a process as significant, polarising and complex as Brexit would result in no one getting what they wanted?
My views on the Prime Minister’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement and the draft political declaration haven’t really changed since my last ConservativeHome column. But I am more alarmed by how definite so many of my fellow MPs are that this is a terrible deal, and that it must be opposed – not because they have an alternative plan, but because they hope to either secure a second referendum or because they would prefer a ‘no deal’ hard Brexit. For reasons set out by me and others, I believe both courses of action would be supremely damaging to the long-term interests of the United Kingdom.

But, as I previously warned, if the draft agreement is voted down and – as seems more likely now – more Conservative MPs (i.e: Sam Gyimah) speak out in favour of a second referendum, and if the Labour party changes its official views on a poll, the Brexiteers who hate this deal may find they end up with a second vote in which the only options on the table are the deal they’ve rejected in the Commons or remaining in the EU.

Indeed, the only credible alternative plan is a Norway Plus option. Nick Boles, its main protagonist on our benches in the Commons, has been open to taking on board comments and criticisms of the optionm and those changes are fully reflected on the website www.betterbrexit.org. This may well be where Parliament ends up – but it may take the ruling out of all other options before we get there. And if Parliament ends up reaching some form of consensus view, then the Government will have to adopt it, too.

And all the time this is going on, there are key debates about issues such as police funding, homelessness, social care funding and immigration which remain in the background when they should be front and centre of our politics. It is all very well for Caroline Lucas (and others) to write about all the issues they’d like to see addressed by the UK Government and politicians. But for as long as she (and those others) keep pushing the option of a second vote and oppose the proposed deal, then the airtime and Whitehall bandwith to deal with these other issues remains completely constrained.

During the next eight days, MPs must prove ourselves worthy of the positions we hold. Our actions will be scrutinised as never before. The stakes are high, and the alternatives need to be weighed very carefully. We cannot know for certain what the consequences of voting the Withdrawal Agreement down would be, but doing so will not provide certainty or stability. This is truly a vote in which, for decades to come, we will be asked to justify how we voted and why we voted the way we did.