As published by the Daily Telegraph:
No one, not even the Prime Minister if he was being honest, would have told you they expected a good result for the Conservatives in these local elections. We are in mid term, experiencing record inflation and skyrocketing household bills. What is important now is that we learn from these results: now the public have spoken, it is important that MPs listen to the real priorities of the people.
For some time, the polling has shown that 69 per cent of people across the UK listed cost of living as their key concern before going to the polls. My colleagues and I have been inundated by stories of those who are struggling to cope and fear it is only going to get worse. These are real people with real concerns.
So we must start with a financial reset: a new budget addressing the cost of living crisis that millions, in every part of the UK, are facing. And people are suffering now, so it must happen now – not in the autumn.
It is the pensioner who cannot afford to heat her home. It’s the single mother who is going hungry herself to ensure her child can eat. It’s the family with disabled children who can’t afford to put fuel in their car. The Chancellor says he is doing all he can. But the current strategy is actually making it worse for ordinary families. The National Insurance increase is putting extra pressure on household budgets.
It is unnecessary pressure, too, because the Treasury has consistently underestimated revenue. The tax year 2021/22 saw a record amount of revenue: £718.2bn in the last tax year, up almost a quarter from the year before. That is more than enough leeway for tax cuts, which would be a godsend for families across the UK and would allow us to remain true to our conservative principles.
To be fair to the Government, the last two years have been extraordinary, and would have driven any government off its course. There has been Covid of course, and we have other external pressures. The world is shifting from free trade, to a more mercantilist system; Ukraine is depressing growth rates right across Europe.
But we have the Queen’s Speech next week, so now is the time to reinforce our principles on three key issues: housing, healthcare, and education.
The Prime Minister’s idea to extend Right to Buy to housing association tenants is a good one. We first announced it in 2002 but have never actually delivered on it. But the solution does not fully answer the fundamental problem, which is that we’ve been under-building houses by at least 100,000 every year.
Our population has grown by over 7 million in the last two decades, so we are about a million houses short. It is time to restart the drive for a property-owning democracy that brings the younger generation into the fold.
We need to start building new garden towns and villages, using some of the development value to ensure the housing is cheap and well serviced with communication and amenities. And it should be decent housing. Today’s new houses are half the size they were in the twenties, and amongst the smallest in Europe. Time to put that right.
On healthcare we must grasp the nettle of NHS reform. For too long Conservatives have fought shy of this problem. We want to keep our healthcare free at the point of delivery – but it must be better. The brilliant work of our doctors and nurses is thwarted by the way we organise ourselves. The answer is not just more money. By 2019, the UK spent a significantly larger portion of its GDP on healthcare than the OECD average. And what do we get for that?
Our 5-year survival rates are worse for all major cancers. A similar theme is reflected in other fatal illnesses too. It is time to start learning from our European neighbours. Yes, our people want our healthcare to be free, but they also want it to be available and as effective as everywhere else in the developed world. It needs to be fast at using all the brilliant new medical technologies that this country is so good at developing.
The same is true for education. In my lifetime we have gone from one of the best countries in the world in terms of social mobility to one of the worst. Academies are helping, but they are not enough. Half of kids on free school meals are pretty much failed by the system by the time they are eleven. We need to be world leaders in bringing new software and new AI-based educational technology in to re-engineer the classroom, and catalyse the skills of our hardworking teachers to deliver a better future for all.
Fundamentally, it is time that the Conservative government had a philosophical reset. I would argue the party hasn’t had a proper reset since Thatcher’s 1979 revolution. Now we need to take the best of what she had to offer – essentially freedom under the law – and craft it to exploit modern technologies to meet modern needs and modern values. It’s time to give people the freedom and support they need to get on in life. That means low taxes and getting people on to the property ladder. It means making true the belief the NHS is the best in the world, and upgrading our schools to retake our place as global leader in social mobility.
The problems of the last two years have been setbacks, but they have not been defeats. They simply mean that we, as a party, must rise to the challenge and deliver a new model Conservatism.