It’s been a tough year. The scale of the economic problems we’re facing is almost unprecedented. But there have been one or two things to smile about. The Olympics, of course, were a greater success than anyone predicted and the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations demonstrated that the wonderful British spirit remains undimmed in the face of austerity. There was some absolutely crucial political work going on as well. The reforms in welfare and education, for example, are repairing much of the damage that Labour did while in power.
I do worry, though, that those successes have too often been buried under headlines and stories about non-issues. We’ve let Labour dictate the theme that the Tories are the Party of cuts and cruelty for too long. Now we need to seize the initiative and focus on the issues that actually matter. The number one priority for next year then must be to establish a narrative. We have to take control of the messages about what we’ve done and what we’re going to do. A good place to start would be the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. There were announcements in it of greater support for business and especially small businesses. That’s exactly the sort of thing that we need to highlight – helping individuals who work hard and want to make something of themselves. That’s where our focus should be – not gay marriage!
The UKIP threat is also a serious one which needs to be addressed over the coming year. Even if they’re never likely to realistically challenge for power, their rise in popularity comes largely at the expense of Conservative votes. UKIP might be seen as a single-issue party but the rise of their star shows the strength of feeling on that issue in Britain. Europe and the EU should therefore be at the top of our agenda. People are fed up with seeing their taxes frittered away on bureaucrats’ bonuses. They’re fed up with the endless talking and pontificating without result. And they’re fed up of the European Court of Human Rights telling us how to run our country. It should be for us to decide whether our prisoners can vote – not some ex-academic in Strasbourg. If we want to deport a man as patently odious and dangerous as Abu Qatada then we should be able to. The fact that he’s still here and we’re still paying for his appeals is simply farcical. If we can grasp these EU issues firmly then people will be more inclined to look to the Conservatives on other issues as well.
But of course there’s more to it than just Europe. People are leaving the Conservatives because they’re no longer sure who we are. It harks back to the idea of establishing a meaningful narrative. That’s where we’ve gone wrong this year. What does the Conservative Party stand for? Looking back over the past twelve months, a foreign visitor might conclude that we’re the Party of gay marriage and green energy, not low taxes and enterprise. The problem is that the leadership and those around them seem to have an obsession with chasing after headlines and fashionable fringe issues. Perhaps it’s a deliberate strategy to distract people from the state of the economy or the cuts we’re having to make, but if that’s the case then it’s not working. It just makes us look incompetent.
Another crucial part of establishing ourselves again as a conservative-minded Conservative Party over the coming year will be in how we define our relationship with our co-alition partners. In short, we need to distance ourselves from the Liberal Democrats. Over the past two years they’ve wielded a disproportionate amount of influence in the Government to the extent where an outside observer would have difficulty working out which was the minor party in co-alition. We may have to govern together but that doesn’t mean we have to agree and we need to be more forceful in showing where we differ. Too often the Prime Minister has appeared to cave in to Lib Dem demands. That needs to stop. Now that Nick Clegg has given his party free reign to cause trouble the PM must prove he’s not a push-over.
Basically, if we’re to improve on 2012, David Cameron needs to be stronger. He needs to be stronger in standing up for British interests in Europe; he needs to be stronger in standing up to the Lib Dems; and he needs to be stronger in pursuing Conservative policies and winning back voters. He needs to communicate with those instinctive Conservatives from my sector of the community – the middle- and working-class people who might not be able to recite Party policies but who know at heart that the Conservative Party is the right one for them and for the country. If he re-connects with them then he’ll be returned as Prime Minister after the next election. But if he doesn’t then, quite simply, he won’t.