Theresa May is scrambling to identify policies to stop the Conservative party’s catastrophic slide in support from younger voters, including cutting the burden of tuition fees and reducing housing costs.
The UK prime minister will outline some of her thinking at next month’s party conference after opinion polls suggested the Tories only had a lead over Labour in June’s general election among voters over the age of 47.
Chancellor Philip Hammond, who this week called for submissions from Tory MPs on how to close the generation gap, told a private meeting of the backbench 1922 committee that young people needed more help than their older counterparts because they were burdened with heavy debts, including tuition fees.
David Willetts, a former Tory universities minister who chairs the Resolution Foundation — the UK think-tank focused on improving living standards — was also invited to Number 10 this week to meet James Marshall, Mrs May’s head of policy.
“We need to recognise there is real concern among young people about their prospects,” said one well-placed Tory MP. “We need ideas to help improve that situation, whether on housing or tuition fees.”
A YouGov poll conducted after June’s election confirmed that the Conservatives have a problem not just with the young — teenagers aged 18 and 19 backed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour over the Tories by 66 per cent to 19 per cent — but also among those entering middle age. People between the ages of 40 and 49 backed Labour by 44 per cent to 39 per cent.
Mrs May wants ministers at the Conservative conference in Manchester next month to set out an agenda that goes beyond Brexit, under the slogan “A country that works for everyone”.
Ministers are looking to boost housebuilding and get young people on to the housing ladder — even though the past decade has seen an array of government initiatives such as Help to Buy, intended to help young people afford to buy their own homes.
The government is also understood to be considering how to improve the system of university tuition fees — which Nick Timothy, Mrs May’s former co-chief of staff, described last month as an “ultimately pointless Ponzi scheme”.
Rising inflation will push interest rates on many student loans above 6 per cent from this month, meaning that students about to start a three-year degree will rack up more than £5,000 of interest charges before they even finish their course.
The issue of rising student debt has helped galvanise many young people to support Labour, which has promised to abolish tuition fees.
“We need to get it back on track so that our students are not only able to get the best education possible but also that they could afford it, both while they’re at university and afterwards,” said Bill Wiggin, the Conservative MP for North Herefordshire who raised the issue at this week’s 1922 committee meeting. “I think the chancellor got that, so I’m optimistic that we’re going to get it right.”
Charles Walker, the Tory MP for Broxbourne, who was also at the meeting, said: “All I said to the chancellor was that this was an important issue for young people, it was an important issue for their parents and, no matter how you explain it, an interest rate of 6.1 per cent is very high given where interest rates are at the moment.
“He certainly left us with the impression that this issue was being looked at and taken seriously,” he added. “I’ve been a member of parliament for 12 years and I’ve not always left with that impression.”