Conservatives must never be complacent about Starmer

Robert Halfon

GUEST POST: Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Is Keir Starmer doing that badly? I don’t want to rain on the parade of opinion poll Tory leads of anything from four to 13 per cent. Of course, it is far better to be in this position than trailing behind and our standing will be especially important in the run-up to local elections.

However, it is worth noting that Labour is still 24 points above its position after the 2019 General Election. It is also hard enough for any opposition party to get a look in, let alone in a national pandemic.

I remember well the Cameron opposition years, particularly when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair in 2007.

At the time, especially over the summer months, Labour rocketed ahead in public opinion. It looked like Labour’s fourth consecutive election victory was in the offing. Yet, by October of that year, thanks to an astonishing performance by George Osborne on slashing inheritance tax, David Cameron’s Conference speech, Brown’s poorly timed trip to see troops in Iraq and his botched scrapping of an early election, Conservatives level pegged and even leapfrogged Labour in the opinion polls.

I won’t ever forget going to the 2007 Conservative Party Conference as Harlow’s parliamentary candidate (by then, standing for a third time), thinking that it was all over – and I would not be elected to Westminster. A few days later, all had changed, and Brown put off the election until 2010. The rest is history. It was for me.

I was driving around one of Harlow’s many roundabouts when I first heard that Brown had cancelled the election. It was announced on the post-conference Saturday lunchtime news on Radio 4. I literally stopped my car, as I was utterly amazed. I thought to myself, “Well Rob, you might get elected after all”.

I mention these things – not to be, as the Prime Minister might say, a “gloomster” – but only to remind fellow Conservatives that politics changes, literally, overnight.

Yes, the Labour Leader is often “Captain Hindsight” and he doesn’t always see the wood from the trees because of his love for forensics. But, it is not easy for opposition leaders to cut through. To his credit, Starmer is reforming the Labour Party by stealth, slowly weeding out the far-left and trying to rid his party of antisemitism.

Of course, the crucial test will come in policy, and whether the Labour Party will be counter-intuitive on public spending. Of that, there is little sign. It appears that there is no lobby group or vested interest they will not try and court in order to score the political equivalent of a quick clickbait “high” in the media and the internet. At some point, Her Majesty’s Opposition will have to take tough decisions if they want to be respected by the public and be a party of Government.

Nevertheless, Conservatives must never be complacent. The public mood can change pretty quickly. Labour party grassroots and council strength remains high. They have a long time to reform themselves and undo the damage of the Corbyn years.

Explaining public spending decisions

It is not always easy to set out the tough decisions on public spending to constituents, especially when they regard emotive issues seen to address social injustice. But, once we have worked out what our political spending priorities are, this is something all Conservatives are going to have to do.

Due to the pandemic, Government finances and our general economic situation are pretty bleak. The Government is spending more than £400 billion just to keep people and businesses afloat. Our country faces a debt bill of over £2 trillion pounds. Laid out in cash, this is enough money to fill Wembley Stadium. The interest on the debt currently sits at £49 billion pounds a year (money which could otherwise be spent on public services or cutting the cost of living – like taxes – for small business and lower earners).

The hard truth of it is that every decision the Government takes on spending increases, whether it is wages or other spending (e.g. on welfare or public services), means that either we will either have to raise taxes – quite possibly income tax – or borrow more. If we keep borrowing, we will simply have more debt and interest to pay. Borrowing will also mean that we will not have any funds available if there is a further economic shock (as we saw in 2008), or even another pandemic.

The Government does not take these decisions to be unpopular and it may sometimes get things wrong. But choices are being made under the difficult economic and financial circumstances our country currently finds itself in.

The other issue is that millions of workers have lost their jobs or their incomes. The Government has to make certain that spending decisions do not increase the burden for workers through higher taxes. Whichever way we look, there are no simple answers.

It is easy for the political opposition parties to campaign for more funding and win themselves short-term popularity because they do not share any of the responsibility for the difficult spending decisions that the Government has to make.

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This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com.

Reaction to #Budget2021

“Even by the standards of Brown, Darling, Osborne and Hammond many of the details in this Budget had been leaked in advance, prompting the Speaker and the Chairman of Ways & Means to issue a joint statement reprimanding the Chancellor. In addition, you must have been hiding under a rock not to have seen the six minute Twitter video (of Netflix quality) plus all the Sunak-branded graphics. What followed was another first: a press conference on the Budget itself. Make no mistake, this was about selling Brand Rishi and shaping opinion before the papers had their say. Judging by the editorials – not the front pages – and the immediate polling, he did his job. This populist government is playing the long game.”

Adam Honeysett-Watts, Founder & Director at do Different.

This Conservative government isn’t leaving office for many years to come. Really pleased to see £19 million announced to tackle domestic abuse in England and Wales, with funding for a network of ‘Respite Rooms’ to support homeless women and a programme to prevent re-offending. It’s an issue that is close to my heart and affects so many. All too often it is hidden and not reported.”

Aisha Cuthbert, Head of Communications at One Housing

“Slick, well-managed Budget from the Chancellor. I’m excited by the prospect of a rapid recovery but let’s hope interest rates don’t rise in the meantime. Onwards and upwards!”

Katie Perrior, Chair of iNHouse Communications

“The impact of Covid has blown away the dogma of Tory fiscal policy. This is a Chancellor acting and redefining not only the fiscal landscape but the political landscape with his ‘right thing to do’ approach to the economy.”

Kulveer Ranger, Global Head of Strategy & Communications (Financial Services & Insurance) at Atos

“A skilful Budget making the best of the terrible hand the Covid crisis has dealt him. This was the first Instagram Budget.”

Lionel Zetter, Patron of Conservatives in Communications

“The Chancellor’s decision to write into the Budget lead-in times for changes in corporation tax was a canny political move as it gives business time to bake in the adjustments and it gives him the opportunity to defer those changes to much fanfare later down the line, if the economic situation allows.”

Naomi Harris, Director at WA Communications

“A perfect combination of politically astute, of-the-moment statements and fiscally flexible future policies. But scratch below the surface and the Chancellor has outlined a titanic shift in Conservative policy towards a higher tax, bigger borrowing, expanded state. This shift must now be reconciled with the Party and decades of conservative economic policy making thus far. Sunak’s second Budget is one he’ll answer for years to come.”

Poppy Trowbridge, Strategy and board advisory

Different journeys, same end destination

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector.

I have written before about my early-life journey from picturesque Beverley – one of the North’s best-kept secrets (and where 59% of voters opted to leave the European Union) – to East Anglia (some 69% voted the same way) where, aged 18 I moved to study politics, including European culture and identity. It is a period of my story which made me develop an understanding for my fellow countrymen’s Euroscepticism.

Yet, sometime during the ensuing decade, I developed a healthy respect for the EU. I attribute this to working in the City and city breaks in European capitals. And so, in 2016, I joined the 79% of South Londoners in Lambeth by voting to remain in the EU. I understand, therefore, why some people, including fellow Tory Reform Group members, questioned my early support and subsequent enthusiasm for Boris Johnson – for he, perhaps more than anyone else involved, advocated for Vote Leave.

Let me set out why I believe our end destination, under Johnson’s leadership, is more important than the journeys we are on – and how I eventually arrived there.

Our relationship with the EU is quite complex. I believed, rightly so, that it is a relationship of such complexity that it cannot be boiled down into one question in a ballot. I also believed – and feared – that a vote on this issue had the potential to split the Conservative Party and the country. Like George Osborne, this was one of those rare occasions when I disagreed with David Cameron because I couldn’t support the call for a referendum on the EU. However, when, in 2015, the Tories unexpectedly achieved a majority, and with no coalition partners to block one, a referendum became inevitable and the campaigns to leave and remain began in earnest.

At that point, I decided to campaign for Conservatives IN. However, the campaign to remain lost and the campaign to leave won. The EU referendum question, while simplistic, was clear. We have since discovered that though leave means quite different things to different people, the decision to leave was made. As such, the discussion moved to how we would build national consensus to deliver on the result of the referendum and help move our country forward.

Except, that didn’t happen. Theresa May made virtually no effort to engage the 48%. This time, as a means of finding consensus, I subscribed to The New European and found myself agreeing with Conservatives for a People’s Vote albeit I prefer the slightly more accurate term ‘confirmatory ballot’. However, Parliament has voted against one and polling indicates that the people do not want one.

One constant throughout these past four years has been the failure of the remain and remoan camp to run an effective operation and win enough support.

There comes a time when we need to accept where we are and recognise the need to move forward and give businesses the certainty they are asking for. Brexit is an important issue, but it should not be an all-consuming and indefinite issue at the expense of other priorities which shape people’s lives. Driven by this pragmatism, it didn’t take much to throw my support behind Johnson – a two-term mayoral winner in Labour London – as the man to take responsibility, own this and make a go of it in the national interest. It is a pragmatism which TRG and other membership organisations should applaud. We need to leverage Johnson’s qualities to win for the nation and shape a better future for all – leavers and remainers alike. After we have reached destination Brexit, we need Johnson’s Conservatives to take on Jeremy Corbyn, Sadiq Khan and the remaining loony left. Our society should be about freedom, individual responsibility and community. It’s time to move on and move forward.

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by ConservativeHome.com (‘I voted Remain and backed a second referendum. But here’s why I now back Johnson’ – September 10, 2019), The Commentator (‘Brexit: Different journeys, same end destination’ – August 27, 2019) and The Yorkshire Post (‘I voted Remain but now back Boris Johnson over Brexit’ – September 16, 2019). It was syndicated on BrexitCentral (September 10, 2019).

The next leader must be able to tell the Tory story

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Director of Conservatives in Communications and works in the financial technology sector

On Wednesday, a group of storytellers – who just so happen to be Conservative supporters – met at the Ellwood Atfield Gallery in Smith Square to hear from Katie Perrior about her time in Number 10, and to explore the purpose of, and indeed future for, the Party.

Perrior served as Theresa May’s PR chief right up until when the 2017 election was called (when May was 24 points up in the national polls). And a fascinating story and exchange of ideas it was for the 100 or so guests – in-house and agency PR and public affairs specialists plus current and former special advisors and CCHQ staffers – who turned up for the relaunch of Conservatives in Communications, which Perrior now chairs.

I won’t spill the beans on what was said, but I do want to share some brief thoughts, based on my experiences, as a way of demonstrating the value that those of us in this network can bring to future leadership campaigns and potentially in government.

I was born in Beverley and grew up in Hull, listening to the band Beautiful South. At just six years of age, my mum died of breast cancer, and shortly after my sixteenth birthday – while finishing my GCSEs – I became an orphan when my dad passed away suddenly. I knew I had a stark choice: to sink or swim. I chose to study – to pursue a career, and to work weekends – so that I could afford to live.

After a much-needed move away from home and positive three years at the University of East Anglia, I jumped on a train to the Beautiful South and began searching for full-time employment – just as signs of a global financial crisis were beginning to emerge. I settled for a life in PR, enhancing the perception of the finance sector and promoting the technology needed to progress it.

Why am I telling you this? The backdrop was an unpopular Tory government under John Major, followed by years in the political wilderness for the Conservatives. And all because of a failure by a succession of people to tell the Tory story of aspiration and opportunity that I knew existed.

In short, the Party didn’t have a convincing narrative and failed to connect with the British electorate which resulted in three consecutive victories for Tony Blair.

Despite the nationalisation of Northern Rock and RBS, and everything else that was happening, David Cameron was unable to secure a majority and ended up forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Whatever your thoughts about those years in power (and mine are positive), there’s no doubt in my mind that George Osborne’s management of the economy, together with strategic and disciplined messaging, helped the Tories to victory in 2015: it was all about, and I apologise in advance, that Long Term Economic Plan.

Confidence in the economy picked up, businesses performed well, and as a result hired new staff, from which I and others subsequently benefited. Fast forward four years and, wow, has the situation reversed. Whichever side you were on before the referendum (or are on now), there’s no doubt in my mind that Brexit is consuming everyone’s time and preventing us from getting on with more important things – and articulating that work.

As the leadership contenders begin to set out their stalls, let’s judge their ability to tell the Tory story – and during that process, where it’s required, I’m sure you’ll see the influence of Conservatives in Communications.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com (May 10, 2019).