This weekend thousands of Tory activists will descend on Manchester for a gathering that may well turn into a group counselling session as Conservatives meet to mull their loveless marriage with the Liberal Democrats.
For many in the grassroots, coalition government feels more and more like a pyrrhic victory. There is a Tory prime minister in No 10, but any hope of pushing through a radical conservative agenda in government has been stunted by May 2010’s hastily convened union with the Lib Dems. Manchester will be an opportunity for party members to vent frustrations, reaffirm their collective values and indulge in a giant, collective moan about their uneasy partnership.
Against the backdrop of David Cameron’s second conference as prime minister, we asked a group of prominent Tories each to come up with five ideas for their leader. In some ways, the results are reassuringly predictable. The Tories are a cohesive bunch as they look out from these pages in their informal uniform of black suits (both men and women). Lord Tebbit, of course, remains the rogue in tweed – and a pressed shirt.
And they care about broadly similar things. The core themes that define Conservatism – the economy, Europe, taxation, law and order, defence – are taken up with vigour among our select group.
On the economy, Conservatives are calling for a renewed focus on growth and snatching Britain from the jaws of another recession. City financier Michael Spencer, a former party treasurer, wants Cameron to do away with the 50p tax rate – a consistent theme – and give a tax holiday to employers willing to take on under-23-year-olds. Archie Norman, the businessman who once dabbled at being a Tory MP, thinks it would be a good idea to appoint a House of Lords committee to go about cutting red tape once and for all.
And when it comes to tackling crime, do not, implores actress and Thatcher fan Joan Collins, cut the police force. Neither should Cameron go soft on locking people up, says David Davis, former leadership contender and lightning rod for rightwing discontent. “There is no alternative to firm sentences for serious crimes.”
Europe, once a fatal dividing line for the party, is now a point of consensus, with nearly all Tories unified in their visceral dislike for the European Union. John Redwood, a senior backbencher, tells his leader to repatriate powers back to the UK “when the EU wishes to centralise more and save the euro”. Others go further and ask for a referendum on EU membership full stop.
Cameron will be disappointed – but perhaps not surprised – that his “Big Society” vision barely gets a mention. Claire Perry, a new MP with an eye on a junior ministerial post, is the only Tory to take on Cameron’s pet project. She suggests Downing Street publishes a Big Society map to show people what is going on in their local areas and encourage them to get involved in their community.
Their emphasis tallies with a recent poll of Tory-inclined voters and party members conducted by Lord Ashcroft, a leading party donor, which cited improving the economy, taking a tougher line on Europe and dealing with immigration as the top three things that would encourage more people to vote Conservative. But on other subjects that really matter to voters, Tories are less engaged. Just 2 per cent of those polled by Lord Ashcroft believed better health policies would attract more votes. In our own sample, only Lady Warsi and Archie Norman bother to mention the NHS.
It explains why Cameron has to tread a fine line between listening to his party while also making sure his policies appeal to the wider electorate. He is deeply suspicious of those who want to grill him on the EU and worries that when the party starts obsessing about Europe, it begins to sound like a strange cult. Above all else, the modernising Cameron does not, to coin Theresa May’s infamous line, want his party to slip back into its old “nasty” ways.
Some Conservatives, it seems, worry that while the centre is changing, the grassroots are stuck in their old habits. Christopher Shale, chairman of Cameron’s West Oxfordshire constituency who died of heart disease at the Glastonbury festival in the summer, had been working on a secret strategy – leaked just before his death – to shake off the party’s image as a “graceless, voracious, crass” bunch and entice younger Tory voters to join the fold. “When we are together we are not always a group of people to whom many of our potential members are going to be magnetically drawn,” wrote Shale in a memo that reminded the top brass that Cameron’s modernisation tilt still had some way to go.
But the party is changing, helped along by Cameron’s controversial parliamentary “A-lists” designed to inject more women and ethnic minorities into Westminster. Some of those new MPs feature in the FT’s list and offer up some refreshing ideas. Perry, a former City banker who quit finance to bring up her three children, wants all children over the age of 11 to take part in compulsory community service.
Orpington MP Jo Johnson thinks Spiff TV – a website for “urban youth” – should be compulsory viewing at Westminster in an attempt to close the yawning gap between politicians and a generation of “bewildered” young people. Nick Boles, who is part of Cameron’s Notting Hill set, wants the Tories to introduce a land value tax to encourage property owners to build on land and rent out empty buildings. Proceeds could be used to cut National Insurance. His fellow MPs will hate one of their own backing a much-derided Lib Dem goal.
But the grassroots go to Manchester knowing that it will not be them shaping policy in a party that dictates from the centre. Arthur Balfour, Conservative prime minister, summed it up a century earlier when he declared that he would rather take advice on policy from his valet than from the Conservative party conference.
More than 100 years on, that sentiment still rings true. Still, Cameron would do well to take heed of one piece of advice – step forward comedian Tom Greeves – as he steadies himself for the annual jamboree: “Be meaner to the Lib Dems.” The grassroots will love it.
Elizabeth Rigby is the FT’s chief political correspondent. Additional research and editorial co-ordination by Katie Engelhart.
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The contributions below are fuller versions of the ideas which have been published in FT Weekend Magazine’s print edition, plus extra ideas from others who took part.
Five ideas for David Cameron from…
Lord Baker of Dorking CH
“University Technical Colleges help to heal our broken society…”
“We need a completely new relationship with the EU…”
“Transform the 20 worst inner cities. Scattergun solutions will not work…”
“Unemployed graduates should teach in schools after hours…”
“Our biggest challenge is to fix the feeling that life in Britain isn’t fair…”
“Announcing a good new idea is not the same as delivering a new policy…”
“Recruit more nothern candidates. Take holidays in the Lake District…”
“Close women’s prisons. Well, not all of them…”
“Bring competition to the banking sector…”
“Freeze recruitment across the public sector…”
“Tear up the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review…”
“Be meaner to the Lib Dems…”
“Six months of civil conscription after finishing education…”
“Put a legal cap on net national debt…”
“Ask new migrants to pay a surety deposit…”
“Pass a law to allow you to turn left at a traffic light if it’s safe to do so”
“Entrepreneurs need to feel wanted and encouraged”
“Enable Britain’s own ‘brain belt’”
“Get the police to smile more and talk to us”
“Gang videos should be compulsory viewing for MPs”
“Tell illegal overstayers to declare themselves to the authorities”
“Stop giving welfare scroungers no incentive to go back to work”