The Conservative Party faces a series of big hurdles before it can think about winning the next election. Firstly it must win back the trust of the voters after a tumultuous period where the headlines have been dominated by parties, police enquiries, and Westminster drama. All the while the cost of living crisis rumbles on, taxes are hiked, wages stagnate and strikes grind the country to a halt.
Then, to pull itself back level with Labour (or something a little closer to it) in the polls, it must make tangible progress on the promises in which it was elected in 2019. Yes, Brexit got done but we are yet to see the opportunities it comes with grasped with both hands.
Yes, there was a pandemic that got in the way, elements of dealing with which the Conservative Party – and Boris Johnson – deserve particular credit for, namely the vaccine rollout. But just ask Winston Churchill how voters reward past achievements at the ballot box.
Finally, it must come up with a clear and persuasive vision of what it means to be, and vote, conservative, and why conservative values are the ones that will help voters’ lives continue to improve in between elections (global pandemics and economic crises notwithstanding).
There is a bigger issue however that underwrites all of these obstacles; surmounting the leviathan that is the government machine. Since the pandemic, the government has grown insurmountably, and it does not show any signs of slowing down any time soon.
And as any minister will tell you, wrestling that machine under control to deliver on time and on budget is a challenge unto itself. I was, until very recently, Minister of State for Efficiency and Transformation in the Cabinet Office, tasked with delivering cross-sector public reform and efficiency, which has been an unenviable task these past two years.
The expansion of the public sector during the pandemic was welcome and completely necessary. When thousands of lives are on the line, one should not be prioritising cutting costs and implementing shrinking reforms; the priority had to be about getting as much support out as quickly as possible.
However, we have long since departed from the throws of the pandemic, and what remains is a higher workload for public sector reformers and efficiency-hunters than ever. But getting this message across colleagues in government with their own priorities, never mind to the top of the chain, is not an easy one. The tax burden continues to rise, as do public sector pay demands and the NHS budget, and still there remains little appetite for a serious conversation about efficiency or reform.
But now we are at a sea-change moment, and the Conservative Party leadership contest offers us a unique opportunity to address this fundamental problem. By selecting a candidate who will grasp the nettle of government reform, who has the intelligence and experience to know what the problems are and how to deal with them, the ability to fix those problems and the tenacity to face down the inevitable establishment protests throughout the process, we can set ourselves up on the right platform. It is upon this platform which we can better address all of the challenges we are facing. I believe that the candidate to get us there is Kemi Badenoch.
Kemi has worked as a junior minister in the Education Department, DLUHC, and the Treasury – so is no stranger to the vast reach, resources and responsibilities of the largest government departments. Ask anyone who has worked alongside her, including reformer Michael Gove, and they will tell you without prompt how capable she is of driving delivery through the often reticent civil service machine.
She led on the Government’s response to the Sewell Commission, which had inevitably prompted controversy, but she faced that down with the gut and guile that is becoming her hallmark to ensure that sensible, conservative common sense prevailed.
Achieving the efficiency reforms that are so necessary is not just about ability, however. There are plenty of capable ministers. It is also about appetite. Without the appetite for efficiency from the very top, any reforms will fall at the first sign of obstruction. And take it from me, there will be obstruction.
The civil service, brilliant as it is, does not take kindly to suggestions of reform. In the wider public sector, efficiency measures are too often branded as mere cuts, depriving people of jobs and those left of vital resources. Whisper the idea that there is room for further efficiency in the NHS, for example, and you will be quickly branded a blaspheme.
I have no doubt that Kemi has the appetite and drive that is necessary. In her excellent piece in The Times outlining her leadership pitch and overall vision, she laid out a comprehensive picture of her small-state conservative philosophy, where each component relies on the others like wheels in a well-oiled (and efficient) machine. She believes in tax cuts to boost growth, shrewder government spending, and increased personal responsibility; none of which are possible without biting the government efficiency bullet.
Virtually every candidate is promising tax cuts but none will own up as to how they will pay for them. Driving the state to operate more efficiently is a key plank in paying for these.
If we are fortunate enough for Kemi to take the reins of the Conservative Party leadership and No 10 Downing St, I dare any civil servant or public sector manager to stand in her way of achieving this vision.
She has the spine and the constitution, the talent and the conviction, to bring about the efficiency of government that all conservatives should want to see.
Baron Agnew of Oulton is a British businessman, Conservative life peer and former Minister of State at the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury.