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Who Will Write The Next Conservative Manifesto?

Last Updated: Monday, October 21st, 2013

Yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph quoted two members of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board on the record, and others off it, in a story about whether or not a Tory priority for tax cuts will be lower paid workers.  It thus raised questions not only about this particular matter, but wider ones about the role of the Board (to which five new Conservative MPs were recently appointed). What powers does it have to make Tory policy now, and what role will it play in forming the next Conservative manifesto?

I’ve been asking around during the last few days, and believe that to find answers one must first tick off the main interest groups in Tory policy-making. These are, first, the Conservative Policy Forum, the relatively new voluntary arm of the Party concerned with policy formation; second, Departmental Ministers and, third, Conservative MPs, whose views on policy-making are represented by five committees under the umbrella of the 1922 Committee, the body that speaks for Tory backbenchers.

In an orderly world, it would be possible to sketch a chart showing how the views of these interest groups flow up to CCHQ – or rather, in practice, Downing Street – to one body which is responsible for putting them into shape.  Either that body or another in Number 10 would then be responsible for ensuring that the finished, consequent policy ideas were then either enacted by departments, or put in the next Tory manifesto, or both.

This is not quite how it is all working out.

For a start, there is not one body responsible for putting ideas into shape, but two – the relatively recently-formed Policy Board, which contains eleven Conservative MPs, and the Prime Minister’s own Policy Unit, which is staffed by non-politicians.  Ten of the eleven Policy Board members are indeed tasked with speaking to the interest groups that I described earlier, principally Tory Ministers and those five committees of the ’22.

The various departmental responsibilities are divvied up between those ten MPs.  For example, public services was dealt with, until the recent reshuffle, by Paul Uppal and Jane Ellison.  (Uppal remains on the board; Ellison has been made a Minister.)  Any particularly promising idea that they come up with is then mulled over by the Policy Board’s central apparatus, which consists of a group of Downing Street special advisers – plus the eleventh Conservative MP, Jo Johnson.

Johnson – the brother of the Mayor of London – is integral to the working of the whole operation.  “There is a Chinese wall between the Policy Board and the Policy Unit,” a Tory MP told me. “And the only door in the wall is Johnson.”  It is Johnson, having consulted David Cameron himself, who takes any particularly promising idea to the Policy Unit.  Needless to say, George Osborne, the Prime Minister’s friend and ally, is also involved. I’m told that the process tends to avoids costly financial Government commitments.

I think that three main lessons can be learned from understanding how Downing Street policy-making is working on the Conservative side.

First, there is a question about whether this structure is suitable for policy-making at all.  One source I spoke to was dismissive, claiming that the Policy Unit is not adequately resourced for the task.  “Let’s suppose the subject is indeed whether tax cuts should be concentrated on richer or poorer voters,” he said. “The Policy Unit just isn’t resourced to examine such a question properly – either to get at the figures, or to provide political thinking.  Chris Lockwood and Daniel Korski” – he said, naming two of the Policy Unit members responsible for foreign and EU policy formation – are clever men, but they don’t have a background in policy-making.”

Second, criticisms that the Policy Board itself is simply a sop to buy off ambitious Tory MPs (and quietly add to the Payroll vote) cannot be written off.  The Conservative MPs on it seem to be more like ambassadors to the wider Party than policy-makers themselves, since the policy-making function is concentrated in the Policy Unit, not the Board, and in only one of those eleven MPs, namely Jo Johnson.  It is particularly important for backbench MPs to feel that their views are being taken into account, and the Board clearly plays a role in that regard.  Oliver Letwin, another policy-making player, is now concentrating on brokering deals over policy between the two different parts of the Coalition, or between Tory Ministers, when impasses are reached.

Third, the Conservative manifesto for 2015 may not be written by the Policy Unit.  Senior figures in Number 10 or Conservative Central Office once had a major hand in the drafting of election manifestos: for example, Ferdinand Mount, a former head of the Policy Unit, and Robin Harris, a former Deputy Director of the Conservative Research Department, were involved in the 1980s.  It isn’t yet clear who will put the manifesto together, but the precedent may turn out to be authorship of the 2005 Tory manifesto by David Cameron himself.  This time, another rising Conservative MP, Jo Johnson, is in charge.  And Osborne is likely to have a big say, perhaps through his chief economic adviser, Rupert Harrison.

One departmental adviser raised an eyebrow when I talked all this through with him.  “My Secretary of State won’t be happy with any manifesto process in which he doesn’t have a major input into his policy area,” he said.  I think this is a point to watch out for. Theresa May, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Eric Pickles, Owen Paterson – there is a long list of Ministers with strong ideas about what the Department they lead should be doing both before the election and after it, and with lists at their fingertips of ideas they want implemented, but which the Liberal Democrats are blocking.

By Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

Andrew Gimson: How Macmillan built 300,000 houses a year “There are some lessons in this for the modern day. Macmillan showed that the ruthless application of political will, along with businessmen employed as fixers, could achieve a surprising amount. He had no qualms about arranging for the building of vast numbers of council houses: Labour was to some extent beaten with its own weapons. But markets were freed up too: the abolition of wartime rationing was the other clear success of this administration. It seemed natural to this generation of Conservatives when necessary to mobilise the resources of the state with wartime determination. Ministers demanded “Action This Day”. Modern government looks by contrast a very tentative exercise.” Read more: http://is.gd/AfXrrr

Paul Goodman: If we can’t trust the West Midlands Police, can we trust the Met? “There is an irony in the Police Federation’s complaint yesterday that the IPCC was acting as “judge and jury” in the West Midlands case – because this was exactly what it didn’t do, since it refused to examine it in either capacity. It instead handed over those functions to the West Midlands police, who really did sit as judge and jury: as the IPCC complaints, it has no power to order a misconduct panel to be held in this case.  Indeed, the use of the phrase by the Fed turns out to gloriously self-revelatory.  It seems to believe that bodies should act both as judge and jury, and that the appropriate one in this case is…itself.

All of which leads to a question: if we can’t trust the West Midlands police to get it right, can we really trust the Met?” Read more: http://is.gd/6qyWFd

Robert Halfon MP: New policies for Popular Conservatism 3) Apprenticeships “David Cameron has said that he wants to see a University Technical College in every major town. This should be a manifesto commitment in 2015. Transforming the prestige of apprenticeships, a new Apprentice Premium, and Government by example are three ways in which the Conservatives can show that they are on the side of hardworking people. Increasing apprenticeships in our country is about the cost of living: better skills lead to better wages. If we are to create a highly skilled nation, we need to offer all young people who do not want to go to university a chance to succeed in the workplace.” Read more: http://is.gd/x2iVEX

Peter Franklin on the Deep End: The final collapse of New Labour “As a historian, Mr Hunt will be familiar with the old East German concept of the ‘bloc party’. Officially, the GDR was not a one-party state – because as well as the ruling Communists, a number of smaller, powerless parties were allowed to exist to give a semblance of pluralism. There was even an outfit called the National Democratic Party, specifically set up for ex-Nazis. Needless to say, these were all puppet organisations that never stepped out of line. If they want to keep their jobs, the last remaining Blairites must remember that their purpose in life now is to serve as ‘bloc Blairites’. After all, no one must ever suspect that Labour is a one-faction party. Because that would be weird.” Read more: http://is.gd/lox1wb

Jesse Norman MP: The mixed blessing of Germany’s elections “What does all this mean for Britain?  At the top level, relations between the two countries remain very warm, and Mrs Merkel bestrides German politics like a colossus.  For Britain, and especially for those of conservative disposition, this is all to the good. But the combination of a Grand Coalition, domestic concerns and Mrs Merkel’s natural instinct for the common ground will limit her freedom of manoeuvre, especially if (as seems likely) the SPD gain the Ministry of Finance.  The two countries share a common understanding of the urgent need for growth in the Eurozone, and for a repurposing of EU institutions along more accountable and market-oriented lines.  There is, too, more scope for repatriation of powers than is commonly recognised, in the run-up to 2017.  But for those interested in reform of the EU, the German elections may yet prove to be a mixed blessing.” Read more: http://is.gd/s5zsfd

By Paul Goodman

 

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