“A week is a long time in politics”

Harold Wilson (UK Prime Minister 1964-70, 1974-76)

Last week’s UK elections could bring about seismic change; indeed during the next decade we may no longer be the ‘United Kingdom’. As our commentary on 17 May last year foresaw, we may revert to being Great Britain, if a referendum is held on Irish unification following Sinn Fein’s success. Furthermore, we will need to be very inclusively British if we want to avoid a further push for Scottish independence.

Disillusion with the Conservative Government is clearly the key issue. This is all about domestic and behaviour issues, and a failure to demonstrate a clear sense of direction. Arrogance is indeed the Achilles heel of politics, and the British people don't like it.

So, while the Government may justifiably claim credit for some major outcomes over the past 2 ½ years - in particular, Brexit and the swift decisions on vaccine implementation - they must do better than wear hard hats on TV. They need to agree a clear direction for the future and communicate it more effectively, and with integrity.

Conservative values should be predominantly about:

  1. Disintermediation/Individual Freedom: Reducing the extent to which others take decisions that affect your life as an individual and your ability to control your own destiny. This may be governmental, financial, lifestyle or ability to travel freely.
  2. Individual Ownership: Recognising that individual ownership and individual responsibility are inextricably linked – so ownership of homes and of shares in businesses in which people work in or use regularly as customers promotes a society with a genuine care for their environment and economic success.
  3. Inter-generational rebalancing: Empowering young people to achieve their potential in adult life, unburdened by both the overspend of earlier generations and student debt, and ensuring that those from disadvantaged backgrounds where there is little prospect of any family inheritance have some resources and the necessary life skills to achieve their potential (what Sir Keith Joseph called ‘breaking the cycle of deprivation’) and targeting support where it is most needed
  4. Participation: Encouraging active participation in helping to run local activities and community action/voluntary work. This is particularly important for young people.
  5. Integrity: Acting with integrity, and working with a clear moral compass, which needs to be reflected in all areas of government activity and public bodies.
  6. Smaller Government: Establishing a clear line of priority for government functions, particularly those such as defence and law and order, which no other organisation can provide: but with the aim of reducing the overall scale of government wherever possible.
  7. Enterprise: Encouraging enterprise, competition and business initiatives in order to build prosperous local communities and strong opportunities for export and trade.
  8. Environment: Regulating and encouraging a responsible attitude towards future generations, including embracing a strong environmental stance against global warming.
  9. Sound Public Finances: Pursuing a responsible approach in public finances and setting a long term plan for the reduction of national debt as a proportion of GDP.
  10. Global Convergence: Accepting the inward migration of people at a pace which the country can assimilate: maintaining security and fair treatment within a convergent global approach.

In summary, in order to regain widespread support, the Conservatives must embrace a more egalitarian form of capitalism, understanding that levelling-up is not just a matter of geographical investment but of individual empowerment for the young disadvantaged, and targeted support for those most in need.

The Liberal Democrats achieved the largest advance on Election Day, but their policies are muddled, to say the least. For example, it may be an election winner to talk of cutting VAT, but this mainly benefits those wealthy enough to pay it in significant amounts - not those most in need, whose food, shelter and transport is not subject to VAT anyway.

The cost of living is a big issue, and as we argued on 28 March, the Government must do more to help - but the root cause needs to be explained, and support needs to be carefully targeted. The explanation must make it clear that the main culprit was the enormous hike in energy prices introduced by Russia last autumn, months before the start of Putin's War, in his attempt to exert pressure on the West.     

Boris Johnson has the intelligence needed to steer this country forward, and he's shown that with both Brexit and the Covid-19 vaccine strategy. However, he has a major handicap as well: he lacks a firm foundation in Conservative values, and he's prone to falling foul of the cult of personality. As he can't seem to get to grips with this handicap, the Conservative Parliamentary Party should take steps to build a new leadership which can take it forwards, closely aligned to the above values.

There are just two years to get themselves sorted: the electorate has given their warning shot.

Gavin Oldham OBE

Share Radio