Tories must be the Party of tech

GUEST POST: Anita Boateng is a Senior Director at FTI Consulting and a Councillor in Redbridge. Connect on LinkedIn. Follow on Twitter

The Conservative Party has never shied away for technological innovation. It was Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century Tory Prime Minister and godfather of One Nation Conservatism, who embraced the first industrial revolution and remade conservatism in his time. It is no exaggeration to say the same forces remain alive today. 250 years after the invention of steam-powered machines, we are undergoing another technological revolution. 

From Zoom catch ups and WhatsApp group chats to accessing banking and the latest news on the go, our relationship with technology has already changed so much in the past two decades. In the midst of a global pandemic, thanks in large part to our mobile networks, we’ve been able to stay close to our loved ones, access important services and work more flexibly than we ever imagined we could. 

Digital connectivity is poised to make another monumental leap forward with the advent of 5G. 5G is not simply about speed. Imagine drones co-operating to carry out search and rescue missions, self-driving cars communicating seamlessly with one another and wearable fitness devices alerting doctors in real-time in a medical emergency. These innovations will transform our way of life.

The job of the Conservative Party and this government is to ensure that all parts of the country benefit from the new revolution that could bring about immense social and economic change. And while this pandemic has highlighted how much some of us benefit from mobile networks, the experience has also shown we have work to do in delivering the benefits of connectivity to everyone in the country. 

To achieve a connected future for everyone, our mobile infrastructure needs a reboot. We need to upgrade existing equipment and install new towers to extend coverage. But the legislation designed to make all this possible – the Electronic Communications Code – isn’t working. The Code was introduced in 2017 with the intention to make it easier and cheaper for providers to make the changes the UK needs to keep pace with the rest of the world. 

Unfortunately, that is not happening quickly enough. The relationship between industry and its landowner-hosts needs repairing. Disputes over rents are making agreements impossible. Infrastructure isn’t being upgraded or rolled out effectively, and consumers are not getting the coverage they want and need. There’s no doubt we need to get things moving if the Government is going to achieve its 5G ambitions. 

That is why the industry joined together to launch Speed Up Britain, a new cross-party campaign calling for action to give Britain the mobile network it deserves. The campaign provides an opportunity for industry, landowners, their representatives and government to come together to find a solution to this problem and make progress towards delivering 5G and other new technologies. Looking again at the law will be an important component of delivering real change.

But this is not just about central government. Poor connectivity doesn’t just hinder our ability to navigate the modern world; it can hold back local businesses and services in parts of the country that need it the most. Councillors, metro mayors and MPs will all have insight into the challenges of mobile connectivity in their area, and what they would like to see change.

We all have a part to play in fulfilling the promise of a truly connected nation. If we work together, we can ensure the Conservative Party is once again at the forefront of delivering a digital revolution for all.

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This piece was written for Digital Tories.

Patience: a virtue the Tories are yet to find

GUEST POST: Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications and is a Parliamentary Researcher. Connect on LinkedIn. Follow on Twitter

The suggestion that 2021 should mark the end of the road for Boris Johnson’s premiership has been gaining oxygen in Tory circles. Some claim that the Prime Minister has lost his way, “run out of steam” and even been fundamentally changed by his near-death experience. While the pandemic has undoubtedly steered him along a different path to the one both he and the Party could ever have expected in December 2019, any attempt to change the Leader next year would be a short-sighted move. Such an act would not only be the most futile use of the Party’s political capital, but an embarrassment to Conservative voters – old and new – across the country. Tories must find patience.

The bigger picture

Firstly, we must look at the bigger picture. The nation is exhausted; exhausted by months of facing the endless threat of a deadly virus and all the subsequent safety restrictions, cancelled holidays, missed family gatherings and the normality of life.

As things stand, more than half a million young people in the UK are now unemployed. The economy is experiencing its deepest ever recession. Economic forecasts for 2021 look even gloomier, with the Bank of England expecting rates of unemployment to rise to 8.2 per cent and predicting it will take over two years for the country’s finances to get anywhere near their pre-Covid levels.

Clearly, there are bigger issues facing the country than inane discussions over party leadership. We should certainly expect the electorate to be unforgiving of any such party who squandered a second of its time in government, especially right now and on such a self-indulgent exercise as this.

Levelling-up agenda

Secondly, the Party must not forget why the Tories were returned to power in 2019 for a fourth successive time, with their largest majority since 1987. The PM’s promise of defeating Jeremy Corbyn, “getting Brexit done” and levelling-up the country was one that not only Conservative voters found compelling, but one that many never-before Tory voters believed in, and, indeed, placed their trust in.

These formerly “red-wall” seats across the north and Midlands were attracted to his ambitious levelling-up agenda, including his promise of delivering UK-wide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025, improving transport connectivity across the country and delivering jobs, opportunities and better infrastructure in these regions too often left-behind.

Levelling-up the country is a long-term ambition for the country and the Party must give him the time to deliver on this. If successful, the Conservatives could cement this broader voter base for decades to come, locking the Labour Party out of government indefinitely. Alternatively, a change in party leadership now, without having delivered on these existing promises, would be — and I use this word reluctantly — a betrayal of the trust placed in them by voters at the 2019 election. The Party must let him finish what he has started.

Beyond the bubble

Finally, the Westminster bubble has been and is guilty of overlooking the PM’s much broader appeal. The “bumbling buffoon” act that so many dismissed Johnson for at every opportunity over the last four years is precisely why he appeals to the great British public. He is quite different.

Some argue that recent polling shows support among the public for the PM is waning and therefore the Party should begin to look for his replacement. However, the Conservatives remain head to head with Labour in the polls, and any effort to change the party leadership in 2021 would only further hinder their ability to deliver on its promises, paving the way for an increasingly popular Sir Keir.

A change of party leadership in 2021 would be an extremely short-sighted move. There’s no question that Boris Johnson has not had the start to his premiership that he, nor anyone for that matter, would have expected nor wanted. However, if we should learn anything from the events of the last four years, it is that four years is a very long time in politics. The electorate has placed its trust once again in the Conservatives to deliver real change across the UK. The Conservative Party owes it to the country to be patient with the Prime Minister, forget any self-indulgent leadership contest and give him the time to deliver.

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This piece was written for this website.

Social housing must be part of building plans to help boost the economy

Aisha Vance-Cuthbert is Co-Director of Conservatives in Communications and Head of Communications at a large housing association

This morning, in Dudley, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will unveil his taskforce ‘Project Speed’ – chaired by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak – aimed at accelerating building and infrastructure projects to get the UK economy moving again as we slowly emerge from lockdown.

This move is welcomed by the construction industry, and those who are both directly and indirectly employed by the sector. However, what we need – in addition to schools, infrastructure and market sale / rent homes – are new social homes for the millions of people who are currently in expensive, temporary and often poor-quality accommodation.

The Government has already signalled that it understands and wants to solve the housing and homelessness crisis, which go hand-in-hand. For example, only last week, the Government announced an extra £105 million in funding to help keep rough sleepers off the streets.

The trouble is, as noble as this sounds, most councils have depleted the cash because of the lack of available social housing. For the most part, the only available option is to place people in expensive nightly-paid accommodation, hotels or bed and breakfasts. And this is exactly why the Government must invest in high quality social homes – to help tackle rough sleeping, solve the housing crisis and save the taxpayer millions.

There’s also a ‘levelling up’ argument. After the general election, I wrote an article for The Times Red Box on why building more social housing would reward millions of voters along the Red Wall. The Conservatives ‘borrowed’ millions of votes from Labour, giving them a significant, working majority.

Specifically, I highlighted a YouGov poll of undecided voters carried out on behalf of the National Housing Federation. It found that 80% of ‘Labour Leavers’ worry about their housing costs. It also found that housing matters more to ‘Labour Leavers’ than crime. In fact, they signalled that housing is the fourth most important issue after Brexit, the NHS and immigration.

I welcome the Government’s ambition to re-boot the economy; creating local jobs and supporting our public services. But, I hope that it will also include building more affordable homes. Building homes – of all tenures – will help kick-start the economy while, at the same time, protecting our public finances.

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This piece was written for our website.

Has BoJo lost his mojo? No, and he’s shovel-ready

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

It’s been almost a year since members elected Boris Johnson as Leader of the Conservative Party and British Prime Minister, and six months since he won a personal mandate from the country – and a stonking majority at that! How is he performing? This piece looks at some of the highs and lows, as well as the future ahead.

The highs

I deal in facts not fiction, so let’s start with the polls. Last December, the UK returned a Tory-led government for the fourth time in a decade: a 44% share of the vote (14m ballots) won him 365 seats* – a Conservative MP for each day of the Gregorian calendar. Today, according to Politico’s Poll of Polls, public support for the ‘People’s Government’ is holding firm.

What’s he achieved vs what did he guarantee? A week after that seismic result in 2019, the Government published its Queen’s Speech, outlining the ‘People’s Priorities.’ Chief among them was Mr Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done in January” [2020], which he quickly did. Michael Gove recently confirmed that the UK will “neither accept nor seek any extension to the Transition Period.”

“Extra funding for the NHS” has been enshrined in law and the number of new nurses has increased compared to last year.

Over 3,000 of his “20,000 more police” have been recruited and Robert Buckland has brought about “tougher sentences for criminals”, including the most serious terrorist offenders. “An Australian-style points-based system to control immigration”, as part of a much broader Bill, is due to have its report stage and third reading.

It’s true that millions more have been “invested…in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure,” and that good progress – new consultations and plans to increase investment – has been made towards “Reaching Net Zero by 2050.” All this while not raising “the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance.”

The lows

Britain has been transformed by the coronavirus crisis. The number of GP surgery appointments per annum is likely to be down, not up. 310,000 people, including the Prime Minister and Matt Hancock, have tested positive for the disease. Of those, sadly, 43,500 have died – one of the highest figures in the world. It’s inevitable that there will be, and it’s right that – in time – there is, an inquiry. Lessons must be learned.

Because of Covid-19 – and the measures this government has introduced to combat it – UK public debt has “exceeded 100% of GDP for the first time since 1963.”

The death of George Floyd sparked many protests abroad and at home. A minority of people, on both ends of the spectrum, including Antifa, exploited Black Lives Matter, to behave quite irresponsibly. Our politicians have a vital role to play in healing divisions and addressing issues, which is why I – and others – were surprised it took Mr Johnson – the author of a book about his hero – time to speak out.

Number 10’s handling of these events has created a perception – among backbenchers and commentators – that the Prime Minister has misplaced his mojo.

An analysis

So, some clear wins (promises made, promises kept) and some evident challenges, but challenges that can be overcome with a bold and ambitious plan. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.

And yet, if you spend your time talking to Londoners, following the mainstream media and scrolling through Twitter, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Government was about to collapse at any given moment – that Sir Keir Starmer, by asking a couple of questions each Wednesday and by sacking Rebecca Wrong-Daily, is about to gain 120 seats for Labour. The mountain’s too high to climb.

These are the same people who: predicted Remain would win the Brexit referendum by a landslide, never imagined Donald J. Trump would become US President and thought Jeremy Corbyn might actually win in 2017 (and two years later). The same people who were confident Priti Patel would resign and Dominic Cummings would be fired, and tweet #WhereisBoris on a nearly daily basis.

That said, 44% can be improved upon and regardless of whether there’s any truth in it – perceptions are hard to shake-off. And so, the Government must listen. In particular, No10 must listen to its backbenchers. They are ideally placed to feedback on any disillusionment across the country, before decisions are made. A new liaison between No10 and the Parliamentary Party should be hired.

In my opinion, the appointment would help the Government make sound policy decisions from the get-go and reduce the number of U-turns in the long-run. However, U-turns aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Like subpoenas (writs “commanding a person designated in it to appear in court under a penalty for failure”), they needn’t be seen as negative – rather a means of making right.

This government should also listen to experienced conservatives in communications. We recently polled our supporters and they rated its coronavirus communications strategy 3.18 out of 5. While positive, it’s clear improvements can be made. First-up, was phasing out daily press briefings, which I’m glad it has done. I’d also like to see more women MPs around the Cabinet table at the next reshuffle.

What we need to hear from Mr Johnson tomorrow, in Dudley, is how he’s going to help Britain rebuild itself and win again after the lockdown. I hope he makes us feel proud about our identity and culture and that his vision is aspirational and opportunistic. The British people have put their faith in him before – a few for the first time – and I’m sure they’ll continue to keep it, if he listens and acts accordingly.

*Election data

 2010201520172019
Votes (000s)10,70411,30013,63713,966
% of UK vote36.136.842.343.6
Seats won 306 330 317 365
% of seats won47.150.848.856.2

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This piece was written for our website and has been republished by Politicalite (June 29, 2020).

Boris the builder

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications

Boris Johnson once described himself as ‘basically a Brexity Hezza’. What he meant by that was that he and former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine shared a penchant for ‘grands projets’.

The prime minister’s announcement that, despite ballooning costs, HS2 would go ahead underlined his fondness for giant infrastructure schemes. At the same time, he also gave the green light to Northern Powerhouse Rail and promised massive investment in the bus network and in cycle superhighways. As if these were not enough, there were also announcements about 5G roll-out, and plans for up to ten freeports.

Aside from his personal predilection for such projects, the stream of announcements around HS2 also reflected the hard-headed calculation by Tory strategists that the best way to signal to former Labour voters in the North and the Midlands that their Damascene conversion would not go unrewarded was to at least start to address the long-running imbalance between investment in London and the South East, and the rest of the country. In order to do so the government had to tear-up long-standing Treasury rules on return on investment.

Aside from the cynical political calculation of the announcements they were also designed to take advantage of the historically low rates of interest on offer to stable governments, such as the UK’s. An added bonus is the prospect of, over time, using infrastructure investment to help to address the issue of low productivity that has plagued the UK for many years.

Boris Johnson’s track record of delivering on giant infrastructure projects is patchy. He can certainly claim much of the credit for the effective delivery of the 2012 London Olympics, and Crossrail was on time and on budget under his watch when he was London Mayor. However, the Garden Bridge scheme across the Thames was a costly fiasco, and during his time as Mayor he had vehemently opposed Heathrow expansion. Instead he championed ‘Boris Island’, an airport in the Thames Estuary – a feasible but controversial project.

But these past, present and future ‘grands projets’ – including talk of a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland – are like their progenitor; they are not just very big, they are very bold.

The prime minister is proposing and championing them partly because of political and economic necessity, but also with an eye to his legacy. Boris wants to go down in history not just as a winner, but as a builder.

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This piece was written for our website.