In her forthcoming Party conference speech, the Prime Minister needs to project an optimistic vision for what the Party stands for and what it seeks to achieve. If successful, there is no reason why she cannot lead the Party on to electoral victory, argues John Baron MP.
Following June’s unexpected election result, confidence within the Conservative Party remains low. This, in turn, is having a detrimental impact upon the daily business of governing. The media is consumed by near constant reports surrounding splits, plots and feuds. But it need not be like this. There remain many positives, not least that the Conservative Government is continuing to improve the lives of all those living and working in the United Kingdom. Moreover, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is carrying its key Brexit votes with comfortable majorities, in spite of opposition parties doing their best to frustrate them. In her forthcoming conference speech, the Prime Minister has the opportunity to set the tone for the coming year by highlighting her aspiration for a compassionate, confident and enterprising Britain. If properly handled, she can confound her critics and win the next General Election.
In her address to Conference, Theresa May needs to re-commit herself to further achieving a ‘One Nation’ Britain. The unfair charge against the Conservative Party that we are concerned only with improving the lot of the rich and privileged clearly had resonance with more voters than we to like to admit. The painful impact of this charge is worsened by the considerable strides the Conservative Government has made in reducing poverty and unemployment across the board, irrespective of people’s background.
Inequality has been reduced to levels not seen since the mid-1980s. Absolute poverty is at record lows, delivering the lowest unemployment rate since the 1970s. Income tax levels have been reduced for 31 million people. Meanwhile, four million of the lowest-paid have had their income tax burden removed altogether. These are excellent achievements, but we need to go further. We must introduce hard measures to boost home ownership, especially among those first-time buyers increasingly priced-out of the market, and reconsidering aspects of student financing such as the interest charge on student debt.
In talking about her further aspirations for a compassionate Britain, the Prime Minister must stress our enduring outward-facing links. For some time Britain has been second only to the US as the largest bilateral donor when it comes to efforts to help and support refugees in Syria and the Middle East. We have continued our proud history of providing sanctuary to those fleeing violence and persecution, until such time as it is safe to return. I would suggest the Prime Minister considers the parameters of our international aid budget – it seems strange that we cannot use the sizable DFID budget to assist with the re-building of our Overseas Territories in the Caribbean after Hurricane Irma. This should surely change.
The Prime Minister should also talk about her hopes for a confident Britain – for we have much to be proud of. There are far too many people who are gloomy about our prospects as a nation, convinced that the country is on a downward trajectory as we leave the EU. Such a view is not borne out by the facts: our economy continues to grow as unemployment continues to fall, inward investment remains strong and Britain retains its role at the forefront of international affairs. In recognition of our economic, diplomatic, military and soft power resources and capabilities a recent survey rated the UK as the world’s only ‘global power’, second only to the US as the world’s only superpower. I would encourage the Government to increase the budget allocations the FCO, MoD, BBC World Service and British Council to ensure we retain this edge.
This downbeat view also ignores the fact that we are in a strong position as we negotiate our exit from the European Union. The Government is right to be more assertive in its talks with the EU, particularly around the issue of a financial settlement. The Government should retain this approach, and guard against transitional arrangements – once assented to, it becomes ever easier to agree to these a second and a third time, and risks a situation in which the Government of the day decides ‘now is not the right time to leave’. This is not what over 17 million people voted for in last year’s referendum.
In stressing our international links, the Prime Minister should highlight that we will be taking back control of our immigration system, following the end of the ‘Freedom of Movement’ measure as we exit the EU. This will allow us to design a controlled and fairer system, open to the whole world and not just to citizens from inside the European Union. Citizens of all countries should be treated equally, and Britain will properly open up to the world’s brightest and best.
The Prime Minister should also talk about her further hopes for an enterprising Britain. The UK remains an excellent place to do business. Our corporation tax rates are low and falling, and our universities produce world-class graduates, as well as cutting-edge research and intellectual property. The City of London continues to hold on to its top spot as the world’s financial centre, taking advantage of our language, time zone, legal and professional services, as well as our flexible labour laws, and there is no reason to believe Brexit will change this – the City excelled long before we joined the EU.
Once we leave the EU, we will be able to strike trade deals with countries across the world. We should take heart from the many world leaders who have publicly declared their ambition to strike new trading arrangements with us, including the Icelandic Prime Minister, who shattered the doom-mongers’ illusions when he pointed out that countries would queue up to trade with one of the world’s largest economies.
I hope Theresa May visits at least some of these themes in her Conference speech, and moves the agenda on. The ‘shock of capture’ following the election must now give rise to a greater optimism and drive, and to a clearer articulation of who Conservatives are, what we stand for, and why we do what we do. If we get this right, rising beyond recent petty squabbles, I for one see no reason why the Prime Minister should not serve for many years to come, and beyond the next election.