By far the most frequent question put to me by the younger generation of Conservative MPs is whether the next election will be like 1997 or 1992. In 1997 we were obliterated after years of in-fighting, so I normally answer with: “That depends on you.” But the truth is a little more complex. In 1992 we won an election which pretty much every political pundit had forecast we would lose, after a long period trailing in the polls.
The question for the Conservative Party today is whether we can win a similar victory at the next election. The answer is an emphatic yes – so long as the Party shows discipline, and its leadership displays energy, imagination and courage. After all, Margaret Thatcher achieved her most impressive electoral victory in 1983 after at one point trailing by 24 percentage points in the polls, and returned victorious in 1987 just one year after a devastating defeat in the by-election in the supposedly rock-solid Ryedale seat. As the Boris Johnson circus moves out of Westminster, the temptation to fractious division will reduce dramatically. So, given that we can end the infighting, what does Rishi have to do to win? I voted for Rishi because I believed the country needed a period of quiet competence and that he was best placed to deliver it. That is exactly what has happened. The public recognises that the Prime Minister has taken hold of all the big issues, which is why Labour’s poll lead has halved.
We are within striking distance. But to overtake Labour will require more than just competence. The public still needs a vision for Britain that meets their aspirations. Conservatives believe in an open, meritocratic society, a flourishing property-owning democracy, and we must provide it. So by “vision”, I do not mean some high-flown conference rhetoric – I mean answers to the very real problems people face in their daily lives. Most elections are decided on economic issues, and the next will be no different. Jobs, wages, standards of living: these require a serious plan. We need a tax structure that encourages investment and rewards hard work. The much touted 2 per cent off income tax would be a start, but is not enough by itself. There are other low-cost measures that could have dramatic effects. The cancellation of IR35, for instance, would hand greater freedom to the self-employed and smaller businesses. Our addiction to cheap labour cannot continue at the expense of cultivating home-grown talent. Our housing shortage cannot be ignored. There are a number of ideas around to deal with it, from garden towns to intensive in-town development. Whatever we choose, we cannot delay getting younger voters on the housing ladder. Surprisingly, we may even have an opportunity on the NHS, traditionally a Labour monopoly. The public has grown disaffected with its poor performance, and there are reforms, such as commissioning private-sector scanning centres, that can trim the waiting lists. We should promote these loudly.
In short, there are plenty of options available, despite the belief held by some outside the party that change is simply too difficult. As the noises from the Boris team fade, Rishi will have space to develop a new vision for the future. If he does so, voters will return another Conservative government in 2024.