Speaking at a Social Market Foundation event entitled Post Election 2015: A Second Helping – Digesting the Conservative Manifesto were:
- Times Chief Leader Writer Philip Collins
- Newsweek Political Editor Miranda Green
- Professor Tim Bale, Chair in Politics, Queen Mary, University of London
The event was chaired by Social Market Foundation Director Emran Mian.
Conservatives’ post-election agenda
Commenting on the surprise outcome of the 2015 General Election, Dr Mian argued that several pledges in the Conservatives' manifesto could create a succession of pitfalls that the party could soon regret.
Discussing the Conservative Party’s initial priorities, Professor Bale explained that the “top three” would be: airport expansion, Trident renewal and acting upon the Smith Commission proposals.
With greater emphasis on the blue collar worker and specific promises from the party’s manifesto, Professor Bale explained that it was likely to retain the following commitments: no Income Tax, VAT or National Insurance rises; a removal of tax liabilities from Minimum Wage workers on 20 hours; an increase in the Income Tax allowance to £12,500; £8bn funding for the NHS; and increases to the Inheritance Tax threshold and 40p tax bracket.
However, he expressed hesitation the Conservatives would act on the Inheritance Tax plans
To keep the “troops happy”, he continued, Prime Minister David Cameron would need to enact boundary reform, as well as implementing his pledges on ending wind farm subsidies; the recently-announced 40 per cent strike ballot turnout threshold; and, potentially, a free vote on the fox hunting ban.
Professor Bale indicated that the 40 per cent strike ballot threshold could prove troublesome, suggesting that if workers “really wanted to strike, that threshold would easily be met”.
Moreover, the household benefit cap would need to be introduced, in order to meet manifesto pledges to fund the NHS.
Moving to the more divisive Conservative plans, which he referred to as the “unholy trinity”, Professor Bale stated that English Votes for English Laws (EVEL), the EU referendum and plans to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA) were likely to produce significant internal wrangling.
The ensuing trouble was likely to stem from the backbenchers, and critics were situated on both the left and right of the party, he stated.
More specifically, suggestions that Justice Secretary Michael Gove will move to repeal to HRA are likely to incur backlash in the House of Lords.
EVEL, he noted, would be “difficult to sell” to the electorate, but in spite of this the party could be tempted to “go further”. If this was to be the case, however, it could exacerbate tensions.
On the EU, Professor Bale argued that legislation would go through Parliament with ease, though but Labour has indicated that it would calls for the inclusion of 16- and 17-year-olds in the vote.
Continuing, he said that Prime Minister David Cameron would deliver a “cosmetic package” on EU reform that he could “sell back to the electorate” and noted that the referendum would probably take place mid-term.
Moving to the immigration targets featured in the Conservative Party’s manifesto, Professor Bale observed that they would inevitably be missed, and would therefore be a major pitfall.
Meanwhile, he added, Universal Credit would be “fudged and phased in”. Meanwhile, promises on housing policy and tax evasion included in the manifesto “mean absolutely nothing”.
Additionally, he said that the Party’s pledge to cut £12bn from welfare spending was an “opening gambit”, but would not be needed.
Worthy of particularly attention with regards to healthcare were plans to cap residential care charges and merge health and social care, which he confirmed were likely to be a thorn in the Government’s side.
Moreover, he said, additional resistance would stem from the flagship Communications Data legislation, commonly referred to by its critics as the “Snooper’s Charter”. This opposition would primarily from the Liberal Democrats, but, he noted, would also arise among Conservative libertarians.
Offering closing remarks, Professor Bale focused on Labour’s strategy in opposition, cautioning that the party should be “careful” because Chancellor George Osborne could “set up traps” on issues relating to Scotland and welfare.
Professor Bale also suggested that Labour “need to give up in Scotland”, and called party support in that nation a “comfort blanket”
Additionally, he claimed Labour needed to ensure its resistance to Conservative plans was seen in terms of “competence” rather than as driven by the party’s ideological values.
Opening with general observations, Ms Green said the Conservatives’ manifesto amounted to a detailed plan for Government, but heavily relied on the “notion of a future alibi”.
She developed this theory by explaining that it appeared expected coalition partners would be used as a scapegoat for policies the Conservatives would be unable to push through.
Ms Green suggested that one should ask the Prime Minister: “What sort of victory was it?”.
She described two schools of thought, one propagated by journalist and Conservative peer Lord Finkelstein, and the other defined by Conservative columnist Tim Montgomerie.
She explained that Lord Finkelstein’s school stipulated that the Conservative victory rested on perceptions of a moderate and “decontaminated” party, defined by the more optimistic “Osborne Agenda” and flagship plans for the “Northern Powerhouse”. She added that the ability of the party to unify the interests of the NHS with need for a strong economy had become an increasingly important message.
Moving to problematic manifesto commitments, she highlighted that the extension of the Right to Buy scheme and pledge to build 200,000 new starter homes could prove difficult. Additionally, planned Departmental cuts would entail “something extreme”, she lamented.
Offering comment on opposition parties, she highlighted that significant amendments to legislation would come from the House of Lords, and articulate opposition to perceived attacks on civil liberties. She pointed to precedent in the form of activism from the Lords as the Welfare Bill travelled through Parliament.
Moving to the environment, she suggested some members of the Party would pressure to “dump the green crap”, effectively halting part of the Liberal Democrats’ legacy as coalition partners.
Reflecting on the overall direction of the new Government, she said it would be defined as markedly “moderate”, but faced a “twin existential crisis” over the EU and Scotland.
Both of these issues could impinge of public perceptions of Government competence, twinned with the “extreme consequences of the cuts agenda” that could unveil bitter internal fighting.
Commenting on Lord Finkelstein’s argument, Mr Collins offered his critique and argued that “Conservative” in this paradigm could easily be replaced with Labour.
Moving on, he stated that this Government could be far more “fractious”, given the nature of majority government and potential rebellions from Conservative backbenchers.
The most salient feature would be the economy, he argued, noting that the current “fragile recovery” was not sustainable. Mr Osborne needed to re-write his economic plan, he urged.
The first big question for the Government would be the question of airport expansion, he explained. This was of particular importance to newly re-elected Uxbridge MP and Mayor of London Boris Johnson, and his proposed plans for airport expansion, which could contradict those of his constituents.
Offering his personal opinion on the matter, he suggested expansion would take place at Gatwick, whilst he acknowledged this insight was based on a “cynical reading of politics”.
Moving to the EU, he lamented that the Conservatives’ “reckless” promise to hold a referendum now had to be redeemed. In terms of political strategy, he urged for action to be taken sooner, thus avoiding in-fighting.
Mr Collins argued that as MPs had already decided their positions on Europe, the referendum had “politically happened already”. Cosmetic reforms would do little to alter debate, or reconcile eurosceptics, he furthered.
Yet, he stated that the case for change would not be compelling. He predicted that if the outcome was “yes” after a referendum, David Cameron would be forced to resign.
As Mr Cameron had effectively put a time limit on his tenure as Party Leader, Mr Collins argued that he must now define his mission and premiership. Otherwise, he exclaimed, there would be little reason for him to depart. He questioned what Mr Cameron stood for as rebels on the right of the Party had increasingly begun to target him.
Moving to specific policy areas, he explained the pledge to cut £12bn from the welfare budget had been designed to be traded away in coalition negotiations. It would be a struggle for Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, he noted.
On education, he flatly stated that the party had no plans, and that Education Secretary Nicky Morgan was “not interested” in the policy area.
Moving to health, Mr Collins argued that the Conservatives were simply “not capable for drastic reform”, arguing that this was the concern of Labour.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt would effectively “close it down”, he concluded.
Reflecting on Scotland, Mr Collins suggested the only policy was “time”, as the SNP began to realise that the Scottish health and education systems weres faltering.
Mr Collins claimed that the Department for Communities and Local Government was the “place to watch”. Plans hatched between Communities and Local Government Secretary Greg Clark and Chancellor George Osborne “really mean it” on further devolution to cities, he suggested.
It was s strategy that would seek to expand the Conservative Party’s support to areas it did “not reach”, such as areas in the North and the Midlands.
Concluding, he remarked that this Parliament would become a “beauty pageant” for all parties.
Regarding the Labour leadership contest, he stated he was not “keen” on Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper.
Surveying potential successors for Mr Cameron, he said that Mayor of London Boris Johnson was an obvious choice for the Conservative backbenchers, but the “new person on block” was George Osborne. The election had been an “Osborne victory”, he exclaimed, and noted his increased personal popularity ratings.
Offering reflections on how Mr Cameron would shape his legacy, Professor Bale argued it was “difficult to pin down”, but would be marked by attempts to detoxify the party, especially with regard to the NHS.
Ms Green suggested it would be defined by pragmatism, but argued that the self-defined “radical”, Michael Gove, was “one to watch”. With his “compelling and divided” agenda at the Ministry of Justice, Mr Gove would present himself as being “on a crusade”.
Mr Collins added that Mr Cameron would be remembered as “adept and flexible”.
Responding to a question on how HS2 would feature in the Conservative Party’s programme for Government, Ms Green explained it would be follow a trend of “massive emphasis” on investment in infrastructure.
She suggested that the “significant fault line” could be airport expansion, noting that the political impetus was toward Gatwick. She questioned whether the Conservatives, if they chose Heathrow, could retain electoral gains made in South West London.
Providing his response to the question on HS2, Professor Bale stated that plans had “gone too far”, so the project would inevitably continue. However, he further emphasised that the Government could fail to resolve the housing crisis, which required housing planning reform. Many Conservative MPs represented constituencies averse to potential changes to housing planning laws, he argued.
Responding to a question on the likelihood of merging Governmental Departments, Mr Collins contended that David Cameron would not advocate such as policy and did not like the accompanying “fuss”. However, the Government would continue with Civil Service reform.
On plans to devolve more power to cities, Ms Green commented that the effective “one-party state” that characterised the Labour-led Manchester council would need to be reformed. She explained that 67 out of 68 members of the Council were Labour, which in her view illustrated the need to introduce proportional representation for local government elections.
Concluding his remarks, Professor Bale suggested that movement from the new cohort of Conservative MPs, many of whom he suggested had been involved in free schools but came from Grammar school backgrounds, could push for a new policy on grammar schools.
Ms Green concluded that environmental policies would be of little importance to the incoming Government. The “green crap” would be held ransom by backbenchers and localism would be promoted by the new intake, keen to feed into resistance to wind farms, she commented.
Closing the session, Mr Collins protested the notion that the Conservative Party would abandon green polices wholesale, and suggested that new Energy Secretary Amber Rudd might attempt to marry conservation with conservative values, under the rubric of a modernisation and moderation package.