John Baron MP presents his suggested Conservative Party manifesto commitments ahead of the Party’s next General Election campaign.
Jeremy Corbyn’s formal vote of no confidence in the Government in January, though unsuccessful, put us all on notice that a snap General Election is a distinct possibility. Since then, further substantial defeats of the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, as well as cross-party talks which appear to be getting nowhere, all contribute to a feeling that the current Parliament is running out of road.
The classic safety valve in this situation would be a General Election, to give the incoming government a fresh mandate as well as to redress the arithmetic in the House of Commons. This is significant, as the current Commons is dominated by Remainers. Amongst other things, this has neutered the Government’s negotiating position by making clear it will not stomach a no deal / WTO Brexit, which is the obvious and default way forward in the absence of a withdrawal agreement. A growing disconnect is opening up between Parliament and the electorate, as the forthcoming European Parliament elections will no doubt demonstrate.
Against this backdrop, the content of a forthcoming Conservative manifesto becomes a moot point. In the hope that it will not be required before May 2022, here is a flavour of what I would be putting inside the Conservative offering.
In the first instance, the Brexit referendum result must be respected. The British electorate voted decisively for a clean break from the EU, and it is essential to stick to the last manifesto’s strictures on leaving both the Single Market and the Customs Union. Only by doing this will we regain full control of our laws, money, border and international trade policy. There can be no question of a second referendum or of extending Article 50 even further, and we must exit on ‘no deal’ terms if no agreement is secured. There can be no more loitering in the departure lounge.
Keeping to the economy, the cuts to corporation tax must be adhered to, and even taken further, to ensure the UK remains one of the very best places to do business in the whole world. This, along with other factors such as the English language, a world-class legal service, and cutting-edge university research and a highly-qualified and flexible workforce are the key determinants for international investment – which has remained buoyant since the referendum, ‘despite Brexit’.
Indeed, investment is all about comparative advantage, as illustrated by our sound economic performance since the EU referendum, despite all the official warnings of economic doom and high unemployment by Christmas 2016 if we voted to leave. This is why we need to take with a pinch of salt these same voices which are now arguing against leaving on WTO terms – terms by which we profitably trade with many countries outside the EU.
The Government made a good start by announcing plans to bring in a revenue tax on the big technology companies such as the FAANGs. Given their impact on our economy and increasing evidence to suggest a similar effect on our communities, especially as regards mental health, this is appropriate. A Conservative Government should go further and bring in a 10 per cent revenue tax derived from business in the UK, which could raise billions each year for the Exchequer.
The manifesto must include a firm commitment to ‘One Nation Conservatism’, ensuring that all share in the country’s growing prosperity. These should continue to include rises in the tax-free Personal Allowance, allowing people to keep a larger share of their earnings, and taking millions more of the lowest-paid out of income tax altogether. There should also be substantial increases to the National Living Wage, to ensure once more that those on low pay are properly rewarded for their work through their pay packets.
There should also be a firm commitment to meaningful increases to the defence budget, where Coalition cuts have inflicted real damage to our manpower and capabilities – the National Audit Office recently highlighting that the ill-fated Capita recruitment contract had not delivered the required number of recruits into either the Regular Army or the Army Reserve in any year since its commencement.
Defence capabilities are increasingly an empty shell, with the Royal Navy struggling to crew the new Queen Elizabeth-class supercarriers, and the RAF still does not have a marine patrol aircraft nearly a decade after the Coalition opted to cancel Nimrod. A country without properly resourced Armed Forces will find it increasingly difficult to be taken seriously in the counsels of the world – shrinking capabilities suggest the country is not serious about international engagement.
Likewise, the overzealous funding reductions to our diplomatic service need to be addressed. It is not a coincidence that the mistakes in our foreign policy over the last two decades – such as Helmand, Iraq and Libya – corresponded with cuts at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, with fewer deeply-qualified people on hand to give commanding advice to the Government, and increasingly sidelined by an assertive No 10 and Cabinet Office. Whilst the Coalition made some welcome steps, notably by re-opening the FCO’s in-house language school, the damage has been done and will take some time to repair. In a post-Brexit world, this should be urgently addressed.
The precarious state of our soft power capabilities also need to be addressed. Institutions such as the BBC World Service and the British Council repay modest investment many times over, and yet all too often they are surviving on short-term grants to maintain services, despite the vast global audience they reach every week.
Funding for this could be secured from inside the international aid budget, which in stark contrast to most Departments benefits from an ever-swelling budget due to the wrong-headed decision to ring-fence 0.7 per cent of our GNI purely for aid spending. There must be greater scope to spend these vast sums on other aspects of our foreign policy, including diplomacy and soft power, much of which has a shared goal of improving relations between the UK and other countries.
The Conservatives must reassert themselves as the party of law and order. The Home Secretary and others are right to highlight that crime was substantially higher in the 1990s when Police numbers were similarly higher than today, but there is a general feeling that the Police are less visible than they used to be. A strong Police presence on the streets acts as a powerful deterrent to both low-level and serious criminals, as well as reassuring the law-abiding majority.
Finally, turning to the NHS, there should be a concerted move away from ‘process targets’ in favour of a much greater commitment to outcomes – which is what really matters most to patients and their families. Good outcomes will ensure care and treatment that is timely and safe, and will allow the NHS to zero in on its core task of making people better rather than chasing waiting targets. These all too often become the priority, especially when performance against these is linked to funding flows. The next cancer plan would be a good contender – focusing on one-year survival rates would encourage initiatives to encourage earlier diagnosis.