Conservative activists and backbenchers can be forgiven for sometimes feeling that we, as a party, are like a ship with listless sails stuck in the Doldrums
We are in Government but, because of the Coalition, we are not the Government. It often feels like we have to put a great deal of pressure on the front bench to do things which should be instinctively Conservative, or – as in the case of same-sex civil marriage – to prevent them from doing things which completely grate against the Conservative grain. Pessimistic feelings regarding the next general election are widespread, but not necessarily justified.
I am convinced that this government – coalition though it is – has a number of solid strengths which it can build upon when we next seek the mandate from voters. Steady progress has been made across a range of policy areas.
Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms to welfare have struck a chord with voters tired of endlessly dishing out benefits. It’s obvious not good for the public purse, but there has been an increasing realisation that it is equally bad for the recipients themselves. Voters are rightly stalwart in their insistence that this country have an adequate safety net for when things go wrong. But a benefits system that breeds dependency can eat away at the spirit of a family and can destroy the natural inclination towards self-sufficiency.
Michael Gove has been a trailblazing radical in education. The Free Schools programme has radically decentralised education and handed power to parents, while the ongoing transformation of schools into academies gives heads and educators the autonomy they require to incorporate the best practices of the independent schools Britain is famous for. Labour have basically conceded the utility and rightfulness of these policies, while contradictorily saying they won’t create any more free schools or academies should they gain power. I think we should go even further, allowing heads to hire and fire whichever teachers they like, and giving them more powers to increase the quality of teaching and the richness of the school experience.
William Hague has completely revitalised the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and instilled in it a new institutional confidence. Under New Labour, it often felt that the role of Foreign Secretary was just a very senior cabinet post to be doled out to whichever parliamentary bigwig needed to be appeased. Hague made clear from his first day on the job that Foreign Secretary was a role he would take seriously, and his tenure in office has proved it. While Labour shut missions and was happier to leave relations on multilateral and European levels, under a Conservative Foreign Secretary the United Kingdom is opening new embassies and building stronger ties with our innumerable friends abroad.
Closer to home, the recent decision to strengthen the powers of local government to refuse planning permission for wind turbines is a perfect example of the willingness of this Government to listen to the concerns of the country and respond accordingly. But these successes have been undersold to the public and to the press, and have been overshadowed by a multiplicity of other glaring factors.
To put it bluntly: voters are worried about the European Union. While UKIP is not a single issue party, European policy is clearly the cause celebre of the Faragists. We Conservatives came top of the poll at the European elections in 2009, but a recent opinion survey put UKIP on top with a 4% lead over Labour, and our party relegated to third. This must not go unnoticed or ignored at CCHQ.
The Prime Minister has made some bold and just moves on the European issue. He has committed this party to an in/out referendum on the EU, but why are we waiting until 2017? The Congress of Vienna took nine months, and the Treaty of Versailles was negotiated in just six. As a party, we need to be debating what our European endgame is, both in terms of our ideal, and what we think is achievable. Once we know that, we must begin the hard work of diplomacy as soon as possible, building alliances with whichever governments in Europe are committed to a rebalancing of powers. Whatever the situation, we need a clear idea of what the European Union is and ought to be, moving beyond the unrealistic and undemocratic permanent revolution of “ever closer union”.
The flight of some core Tory voters to UKIP is not just about Europe, however. There is a feeling of alienation from politics that is compounded when, for example, the Government seeks to rush through a programme of drastic radical social change like same-sex civil marriage. Such an assault on one of the fundamental institutions of society is precisely the kind of action many voters believe the Conservative party was designed to prevent and frustrate. To see such policies enacted under our own government leaves many voters wondering why they bother, and questioning the decades of commitment they’ve made to the organisation.
Even if one agrees with the radical principles behind same-sex civil marriage, it is undeniable that this specific bill is very poorly drafted and will open the floodgates to a wide variety of legal challenges and court cases. One of the central purposes of parliamentary scrutiny is to go through legislation to seek out potential problems and unintended consequences that may arise should bills be passed and to amend the bill to prevent future quandaries and to prevent legal problem arising. Because of the cultural impetus of this bill, it has been subjected to only the faintest hint of scrutiny for fear that pointing out its numerous legal flaws will be misinterpreted as either opposition to the bill or, more ludicrously, outright homophobia.
The bill should be dropped, but if the Government are hell-bent on forcing it through, then they at least should be so liberal-minded enough as to include explicit protections for conscientious objectors, especially with regard to free expression and employment.
This is not to say that the party should be a narrow group of only pro-traditional marriage people or only pro-same-sex civil marriage people; of only Eurocentralists people or only national-sovereigntists; of only social traditionalists or only social liberals. The Conservative party was once an alliance of numerous interests united in pursuit of common goals, but to return to that model we need a leadership that balances clarity with inclusiveness in order to move forward. We’ve seen the front bench has actually been quite sensible in responding to the alarum raised by backbenchers on behalf of their constituents on a number of issues but the embarrassment of “u-turns” could easily be avoided in the future if the front bench and ministerial teams adopt a more collaborative approach with the backbenchers and the party as a whole.
The resulting tapestry of forthright policies must reflect grassroots opinion and offer voters a platform to vote for that is genuinely different from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This wouldn’t just decrease the alienation which undermines parliamentary democracy, but might actually help win a general election, too. Clear, confident leadership in alliance with the grassroots will pave the way for a Tory victory in 2015.
Sir Edward Leigh has been a Member of Parliament for over 30 years and was knighted this year for service to public and political life