What would this week’s Queen’s speech have contained had Britain elected a Conservative government two years ago? A group of Tory MPs have drafted a mix of legislative ideas in an attempt to answer that question. John Redwood, for instance, has suggested changes to energy policy, while David Davis has proposed a prisons reform agenda. ConservativeHome.com has knitted 15 ideas from different MPs together in an alternative queen’s speech that we’re publishing on Monday and Tuesday.
Some of the ideas, a double referendum on Britain’s relationship with the European Union, for example, will confirm existing perceptions of the party. Another calls for the replacement of European supremacy on human rights with a British bill of fundamental rights. There are also recommendations for faster cuts in taxation and the expansion of grammar schools. These aren’t ideas that David Cameron would necessarily have embraced if he’d won the last election but they are the priorities of many Conservative backbenchers. They are, no doubt, what certain commentators have in their closed minds when they talk of a “lurch to the right”.
The causes most associated with the right are often presented as if they are extreme, but opinion polls suggest that big majorities want tougher control of immigration; faster, longer incarceration of serious offenders; and a more conditions-based benefits system.
Not only is much rightwingery popular, it’s also socially just. Polly Toynbee has herself acknowledged that it’s the working class who have suffered most from uncontrolled immigration. I would argue that Europe has also been bad for those on the lowest incomes. The EU’s common agricultural policy has inflated the average family’s grocery bill and its energy regime has made it more expensive for pensioners to heat their homes.
Some of the most interesting ideas in the alternative Queen’s speech focus on greater rights for consumers against big business. Draft bills would produce more competition in the crucial banking, energy and water markets. The belief threaded through these bills is that the best way of protecting the interests of the little people is to give them more power and make it easier to switch between banks and electricity companies if we’re not getting a good service.
The challenge for the Conservative right – more accurately, the Conservative majority – is to blend so-called core vote policies with an enthusiastic acceptance of the NHS, progressive taxation and other settled features of modern Britain. One of the reasons Thatcher was so successful was that she understood certain institutions that may not have matched her ideals were nonetheless sacred to the British people. She rarely had to U-turn because she was never too ambitious and understood that it was dangerous for a government to challenge too many vested interests.
Cameron can’t win the next election if he does not reunite the Tory family. The hostility directed at him by a sizeable portion of his own party and by newspapers that traditionally support the Conservative party is unsustainable. It is not an exaggeration to say that we may be on the brink of a historic split in the centre-right vote. If 5% to 10% of voters get into the habit of voting Ukip, it will become very difficult for the Conservatives to win marginal seats.
The conventional wisdom is that you cannot simultaneously appeal to Liberal Democrat, Labour and Ukip-inclined supporters. That is wrong. The alternative Queen’s speech argues that Cameron can win by combining traditional Tory messages with policies that accelerate social mobility and empower ordinary people.
The most important decision the Tory leader will make in the next few weeks is whether to keep Sayeeda Warsi as party chairman or appoint a figure with the authority of a Norman Tebbit or a Chris Patten. These were powerful Tory chairmen who focused on winning elections while the prime minister governed the country. If Cameron appoints a big beast to the chairman’s role – with a mandate to rethink the party’s machine and manifesto – his MPs will have fresh hope about the next election, and become much easier to manage.