Every conservative I talk to is slumped in depression. They recognise the Conservative Party has been in power too long, has made a frightful mess, including of the economy, that there are serious conduct issues in relation to various MPs, that Brexit has delivered few benefits but plenty of hassle, that the welfare state is out of control and so is immigration and so on.
Labour is averaging a 21% lead in the polls and to cap it all, the Royal family has been subject to another bombardment from the Daughter-In-Law. So the argument goes, and it is hard to disagree with it.
But it’s now worth asking the question. Could Labour blow it?
An odd set of priorities
The question is prompted by the peculiar policy priorities of opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer, and his team, of which the latest is the Commission on the UK’s Future: Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy, led by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and published today.
There are some sensible ideas on local Mayors. But if you are into radical constitutional reform, it is all there. More powers to Scotland, including its own foreign policy and limiting the ability of Westminster to overrule Edinburgh. A written Constitution, in the form of a New Constitutional Statute.
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The House of Lords will be replaced with a new Assembly of Nations and Regions. New Councils of Nations and Regions will include local leaders and devolved administrations. Policy from climate change to security should be decided jointly. It will be “A New Britain founded on a new relationship between our government, our communities and the people”. Just like that.
Then there are private schools. Very bad. We are told that education could no longer be a charitable purpose and VAT and business rates could be imposed. How will this work in practice without causing hundreds or thousands of institutions, including Academy Trusts, to be forced into restructuring or closure? Or is it just a modest tax raising foray? We are not told.
These ideas, such as nationalising large parts of the energy sector, elicit the questions: what has this all got to do with the price of fish? Shouldn’t we, as a country, concentrate on more essential day to day priorities, rather than yet more constitutional upheaval, with unexpected consequences? And I thought the Labour plan was to say very little, cosy up to business and make nice noises about competence, levelling up etc.
Back on planet earth
Meanwhile, outside the polished halls of think tanks, there are essential matters which need addressing. And it has to be said that the Government is trying to deal with at least some of them. It may not be perfect, but one thing which is unlikely to appear from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Red Box is “a radical blueprint to reshape our country”. We have had enough of that to be going on with, thanks.
The pound has escaped from being Trussed up and is now well over $1.20. Mortgage rates are creeping lower and a five-year fixed rate starts with a 5 again. Petrol is below 160p per gallon. And call me old fashioned but I doubt most people will be banging pots and pans for the nurses when they walk out on 15th and 20th December, demanding a 19% pay rise.
Then there is Brexit. The Tory signature policy. There are a few thousand people in the country who reckon it is going swimmingly. Pretty well everybody else either reckons it is a disaster or our Brexit deal needs to at least smooth and strengthen our relationship with the EU single market, otherwise known as our clients and customers. We want cheaper food, fewer queues at airports, our Amazon parcels to arrive on time, growing exports and more business investment. I doubt more than a few dozen people is remotely interested in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership we are supposedly joining alongside China and Taiwan. Our competitive advantage is as gateway into the EU.
The Brexit agreement is due for review in 2024. And what has Labour got to say about it? Nothing official. The truth is they are itching to re-join the single market, which makes some sense despite coming with free movement attached. But you only have to listen to Tony Blair or look at the body language to see that they secretly want to re-join the full EU too, which makes less sense and would signal years of uncertainty.
We don’t want any more upheaval, thank you. And the infamous Red Wall wants to know about the price of fish. And eggs. And gas and petrol. More power for Nicola Sturgeon and a fantasy about re-joining the EU are not obvious priorities for them.
A fresh start
Meanwhile, over in Toryland, there are persistent rumours that some Tories have been having various meetings without coffee with the His Majesty’s constabulary. Even if those are not true, we do know that many prominent MPs are retiring.
A way through the marshes for Rishi Sunak therefore presents itself: a recovering economy, a clearout of the Parliamentary Conservative Party, a fresh start, a reshuffle, getting stuff to work, including Brexit. Labour, by contrast, could be offering a series of left-wing hobby horses which promise yet more political aggravation, economic cost, higher energy prices and cultural and social divisions.
The Reform Party will, one assumes, stumble on the night, just as it did in the City of Chester by-election last week, where it got 772 votes, 2.7% of the total. And that was despite the threat of BRINO (Brexit in Name Only), small boats etc.
If we are honest with ourselves, the Conservatives deserve a drubbing. So, this plan may not work for Rishi Sunak. But it might. If anyone has any better ideas, I am all ears.
George Trefgarne is CEO and founder of Boscobel & Partners.