What the UK needs from the next Conservative leader

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Rachel Wolf is a former Downing Street adviser and was co-author of the 2019 Conservative General Election Manifesto. She is the Founding Partner at Public First. 

“Get Brexit Done. Invest in our NHS, schools, and police.” 

In October 2019, this banner hung across the Manchester Central Conference Complex in the United Kingdom, and went on to form the backbone of the Tory election manifesto.  

It was simple, it appealed to a huge portion of the country, and it won the Conservatives an election landslide.

Other winning slogans in recent times? “Take back control.” “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead.” Did I miss the bit where we promised to return to our libertarian Conservative roots, and the public all flocked to our banner.

Over the last few weeks, however, the Tory Party’s many leadership candidates, and their supporters, have all been behaving as though they were pummeled in the last U.K. election. Their underlying analysis seems to be that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was removed not because of his own behavior but because of his policies, and that what the nation’s really crying out for is a complete abandonment of the approach of the last several years. 

This is obviously crackers. The problem of the last few years isn’t that we made the wrong promises — it’s that we haven’t delivered on them. And we need someone who can.

In 2019, the Conservatives won a landslide victory on a platform wholly divorced from those we’ve heard in recent weeks. They trod a delicate path, combining promises on public spending and action on immigration, while maintaining a clear dividing line with Labour on fiscal responsibility. We will fund the National Health Service (NHS) without bankrupting ourselves in the process, they said. We will improve your towns, your high streets and help you and your children acquire the skills you need. We will have an Australian-style immigration system, so that you can control who comes into the country.

With the possible exception of net zero, however, domestic policy progress has been glacial, as Conservatives have been unable to deliver on these promises because of a mix of understandable reasons — like COVID-19, massive supply constraints and inflation — and bad ones, like a prime minister incapable of gripping or delivering.  

And what are we likely to see this winter? People feeling drastically poorer and probably defaulting on their bills. Many waiting for hours for ambulances, and still unable to get a GP appointment. More high street stores boarded up. Petrol you can’t afford, and trains not running because of strikes or dysfunction.

I’m frequently asked about the next Tory manifesto and what it’s likely to contain. And my view is that the 2019 manifesto pulled off the trick of being a first-term manifesto from a fourth-term government — something only made possible by Johnson’s character and a set of unique circumstances. A reset, in short. 

But neither of the current leadership candidates, both of whom worked at a senior level in Jonson’s cabinet — and in Liz Truss’s case, the cabinets of all three recent Conservative prime ministers — can credibly do this again. Instead, they are stuck with a second-term manifesto, which tends to offer a version of “we started the job, this is all our progress, now trust us to finish it.”

Exactly what job will they have started though? 

The answer to that question doesn’t seem to be, “what was promised in the last election,” for either of the two final candidates. My company has been assiduously tracking the policy commitments of all the leadership candidates, and we haven’t spotted anything about 40 hospitals, using new money committed to the NHS, finishing the lifelong skills program that was announced in the last year, controlling immigration, or cutting crime — which people are increasingly concerned about. 

Instead, we have Truss on the one hand, who, despite a career of loyally following all of her premiers and appearing to back all their major policy positions — David Cameron on Brexit, Theresa May on the rule of law and judiciary, and, most recently, Johnson — is taking huge risks on tax and inflation, but without offering much of anything else.

Then, we have Sunak on the other, who, despite taking major risks in his career — like choosing to back Brexit despite being a rising star under David Cameron, or making large punts as chancellor over COVID-19 — is offering little beyond being a grown-up. 

There’s also an argument doing the rounds that elections are always about character — that voters don’t have clear policy positions in mind, like Westminster geeks, and that they don’t care about substance at all. This is patently nonsense. Character will be decided, in large part,on people’s records. Did they keep their promises? Did they deliver when it got tough? 

That’s why, if I were Truss or Sunak, I would be focusing much more of my attention on demonstrating that I can get a grip and deliver beyond pulling a tax-cutting lever now versus 2024 — as well as, presumably, offering more help on bills as they rise yet again in October, and then in January. The risk is that Truss appears too volatile to manage this, and Sunak appears not to care.

Meanwhile, there’s the specter of a rise in populism haunting this contest, the kind we’ve consistently seen throughout Europe but have so far avoided in Britain.

Imagine you are a 2016 Leave voter and a 2019 Johnson backer, living in a town that feels like it’s decayed year-on-year. Imagine you were promised better public services, green jobs and a nicer town center. What would you think right now? Would you think the Conservatives had done a decent job despite very difficult circumstances, as your costs outstrip your wages by a bigger margin each and every month? Would you say, “Oh well, at least they’re not boring like Starmer, who also hasn’t got anything interesting to offer. I’ll vote for them?” 

Or, would you be highly susceptible to a new, or old, populist force from the right or left — a Martin Lewis figure at best, or a Nigel Farage figure or something else altogether worse? Would you listen to someone who said, “They promised that things, finally, would be different. They aren’t.”

This upcoming election’s about much more than who will be the next Conservative Prime Minister. It’s even about more than the soaring inflation that’s pushing people to desperation. For all the noise and complaints from much of the media, Britain remains a staggeringly balanced, tolerant country. We are wholly unlike America — as our research demonstrates — and have consistently resisted, over the last century as well as the last decade, the kind of populism that has torn apart much of Europe, and now appears to be doing the same in America. 

For this, we have to thank the good sense of the British public. But their patience will be tested to the brink in the next couple years, and they need a prime minister who understands that — a prime minister who is in politics to do, not just to be.