The Coalition government came together in the national interest armed with the primary purpose of fixing the economic mess left by the previous administration. The Conservative-led government has been working hard in the face of strong economic headwinds, within the constraints of coalition. It has not been easy, but significant progress has been made on its priority of reducing Labour’s deficit and stabilising the public finances for the future.
It has been a bumpy ride and in the third year of Coalition government there is understandable concern about what happens next, especially when the Coalition partners appear to be pulling in different directions.
The Institute for Government’s recent report on the mid-term renewal of a coalition government’s legislative programme is informative. Historically in Britain and across the world, mid-term renewals are common, especially during periods of coalition. And the practical reasons for an immediate review and renewal the Coalition agreement are compelling.
As we enter the third year of coalition, new issues are emerging which require legislation. Issues like banking reform, adult social care, party political funding and many more were not dealt with in the 2010 agreement. To address these issues, a prioritisation of Coalition policies needs to take place now.
From a Conservative party perspective, the choices we are facing would be made easier following review: Do we move to minority government or call an election as newly emerging Lib Dem demands seemingly undermine good governance? How is a Eurozone implosion to be handled? If a referendum is triggered by an EU treaty change, do we offer a wider question on our relationship with the EU? Should the government bring forward policies which were not part of the coalition agreement, such as those surrounding marriage, Lords Reform and aspects of NHS restructuring?
A renewal of the agreement would also take seriously the concerns of the voluntary and parliamentary Conservative party and boost the morale of Associations throughout the country. As a grass roots Conservative activist since the 1980s, I know how loyal, hard-working and effective the Party can be. Nowadays, when I visit Conservative Associations, I pick up a sense of frustration with coalition and a concern that party members are distanced from influencing decision-making at the top. When there is a danger that the Conservative Party is viewed as a problem to be managed from the top down as a tool of coalition, rather than a supportive family valued by its representatives, it is vital that party members’ views are heard and embraced.
To rebuild connections with the parliamentary and voluntary party, I believe the time is right to calmly consider what we want for the future. Loyalty runs deep in the Conservative Party, but it does not extend to the idea of permanent coalition. While some people may enjoy the concept of perpetual coalition, the Conservative Party must have a distinct identity and seek to prevent future coalitions. Coalition is ultimately the unwanted side effect of the Party’s failure to win an outright majority. But a vibrant and motivated Conservative Party is a formidable foundation for winning elections.
Mid-term polls rarely make enjoyable reading for governing parties, but we cannot afford to hide from the negative approval ratings which point to a Labour/Lib Dem coalition if something is not done. Fear of tackling the underlying discontent among supporters and voters must not allow us to sleep-walk into losing the 30-40 marginal seats that were so hard won in 2010, needlessly squandering the high-calibre and energetic new MPs of the future.
With many MPs feeling they have nothing to lose and a lot to offer in the current climate, we must also harness their energy and expertise to forge a new manifesto and election-winning strategy for what remains of this Parliament.
It is reassuring that many Conservative MPs are working hard to define the policies and manifesto required for a Conservative majority at the next election. 2020 Conservatives, newly elected MPs and the 1922 sub-committees are working on policy ideas for the manifesto, because we are determined to see a wholly Conservative government. There is great experience among Conservative Peers and Associations which must also be brought to bear.
Right now the country and the party need a greater sense of mission and direction. We must make and win the arguments for a more prosperous Britain with a caring and determined majority Conservative government. By reviewing and refreshing the terms of the Coalition agreement, we will have the chance to rally round and reaffirm our confidence in the direction of travel and increase the chances of making economic growth a reality.
It is in this context that Conservative MPs are keen to reflect on the future of both the next manifesto and the Coalition agreement. Consideration of what the country needs from the remainder of the Coalition period must be part of the process of renewal.