The Daily Telegraph

Wil­liam Hague:

The Gov­ern­ment needs a united team of min­is­ters con­stantly bang­ing the drum for op­por­tu­nity

- wil­liam hague

The an­nounce­ment that the Con­ser­va­tive Party in­tends to set up a sec­ond head­quar­ters in Leeds meant much more to me than it would have done to most peo­ple. It was to that fine city that I jour­neyed in the Seven­ties for the valiant gath­er­ings of the York­shire Area Young Con­ser­va­tives, and around its neigh­bour­hoods that I learned the joys of meet­ing hos­tile vot­ers, dream­ing of the day when the Tories might re­gard the north of Eng­land as their base and home.

To­day, Leeds it­self is ac­tu­ally some­what less Con­ser­va­tive in its loy­al­ties than all those decades ago, its mid­dle-class sub­urbs hav­ing trended Left. But many of the old work­ing-class dis­tricts around it are more Tory than they have ever been, even where I grew up in what we fondly termed the Soviet Re­pub­lic of South York­shire. It was there that the com­mand­ing tow­ers of the Red Wall fell un­der Boris John­son’s land­slide last De­cem­ber. Now, a new HQ at least sym­bol­ises the de­ter­mi­na­tion to de­fend these gains.

The huge change in the pol­i­tics of York­shire, and other parts of the North and Mid­lands, tells us much about the power of val­ues in pol­i­tics. The rea­son that so many ar­eas re­mained solidly Labour for decades was that mil­lions of peo­ple iden­ti­fied with Labour’s trade union-based val­ues, what­ever their ac­tual poli­cies. And the ex­pla­na­tion for the steady loss of those ar­eas in the last decade, cul­mi­nat­ing in the col­lapse of last year, was the per­cep­tion that Labour had moved to other val­ues that were metropoli­tan, elit­ist, un­pa­tri­otic and quite un­re­lated to north­ern com­mon sense.

If your val­ues are out of line with those of key vot­ers, you can’t get elected, how­ever bril­liant and de­tailed your poli­cies might be. I wish I had un­der­stood the sheer, over­rid­ing im­por­tance of this when I was party leader two decades ago, for I would have given far less at­ten­tion to pol­icy launches and po­lit­i­cal tac­tics, and much more to sim­ply and con­sis­tently ex­press­ing the en­dur­ing but up­dated val­ues of the party. When­ever there is a Con­ser­va­tive leader of the op­po­si­tion again – I hope not for a long time – the need to place val­ues cen­tre-stage will be the first thing I will say to them.

Un­for­tu­nately for the Con­ser­va­tives, Sir Keir Starmer has had this ad­vice from else­where, or has al­ready been around long enough to know it. His speech to Labour’s vir­tual con­fer­ence last week was re­plete with ref­er­ences to fam­ily and coun­try. He ex­pressed his pride at hav­ing been a pub­lic pros­e­cu­tor and his ex­cite­ment when he re­ceived a knight­hood at Buck­ing­ham Palace. It was very ob­vi­ously a speech that Jeremy Cor­byn could not have given, but it was ad­di­tion­ally about re­align­ing the Labour Party with the aban­doned vot­ers of the North. Sir Keir is not wast­ing his time an­nounc­ing poli­cies, but in­stead is de­vot­ing him­self to re­build­ing val­ues. As an op­po­si­tion leader, at least, he knows what he is do­ing.

So when Boris John­son steps on to the vir­tual ros­trum this af­ter­noon, it is his chal­lenge not merely to com­mu­ni­cate his poli­cies but to set them in the con­text of pow­er­ful Tory val­ues. This is a more dif­fi­cult task for an in­cum­bent Prime Min­is­ter, be­set with a se­ri­ous global cri­sis and a mul­ti­tude of daily de­ci­sions, but it will be­come an es­sen­tial part of ex­plain­ing the Gov­ern­ment’s ac­tions through all the un­ex­pected buf­fet­ings and crises of the next few years.

It is also made eas­ier by the fact that the Chan­cel­lor, Rishi Su­nak, hit the nail of Tory val­ues squarely on the head in his own speech yes­ter­day: “I am com­mit­ting my­self to a sin­gle pri­or­ity – to cre­ate, sup­port and ex­tend op­por­tu­nity to as many peo­ple as I can …. to cre­ate sec­ond chances, to see po­ten­tial met, and to ex­tend the awe­some power of op­por­tu­nity to all who seek it.” This theme is ab­so­lutely key, and, if pur­sued re­lent­lessly, will keep the Tories on ground where Sir Keir can­not con­vinc­ingly fol­low, un­less he gets rid of most of his party. The Con­ser­va­tives have been at their most suc­cess­ful when in­deli­bly associated with the ex­ten­sion of op­por­tu­nity, from Ben­jamin Dis­raeli all the way to David Cameron, through the tri­umphs of Mar­garet Thatcher.

Some com­men­ta­tors will at­tempt to ar­gue that it is a prob­lem for the Prime Min­is­ter that it is the Chan­cel­lor who so clearly sets out this theme. But it will be all the more ef­fec­tive if pur­sued in fu­ture years by a group of Tory lead­ers who form a vis­i­ble team. What Boris needs is sev­eral Su­naks, look­ing more like a group of bril­liant min­is­ters di­rect­ing their hard-work­ing ad­vis­ers rather than com­ing sus­pi­ciously close to be­ing the other way around.

Let us hope that is a goal for fu­ture reshuf­fles, but what is even more cru­cial is to give suf­fi­cient pri­or­ity to cre­at­ing op­por­tu­nity and to do noth­ing that cuts across it. That will be dif­fi­cult when so many op­por­tu­ni­ties – to ex­pand firms, find em­ploy­ment or launch ca­reers – are be­ing erased by the na­tional strug­gle with Covid-19. The poli­cies Boris John­son set out last week were com­pletely on the right lines. They in­cluded fully funded col­lege cour­ses for adults, more ap­pren­tice­ships in smaller busi­nesses, new “skills boot camps” and dozens more free on­line cour­ses.

If, at the same time, min­is­ters can make a suc­cess of the new vo­ca­tional train­ing col­leges, they will be­gin to rem­edy two cen­tral prob­lems of Bri­tish so­ci­ety: the fail­ure to train peo­ple for en­gi­neer­ing and prac­ti­cal skills, and to en­sure that any­one can start at the bot­tom and get to the top. The great risk is that of not be­ing bold enough. What about tax re­bates for em­ploy­ers who in­vest in low-skilled work­ers? Or ask­ing busi­nesses to help for­mu­late the qual­i­fi­ca­tions they ac­tu­ally need, or hav­ing a sin­gle ap­pli­ca­tion point for part-time cour­ses, and many other ideas?

No one will ever say, when we look back in fu­ture years, that the Gov­ern­ment did too much on skills and train­ing. If, in­deed, op­por­tu­nity is the sin­gle pri­or­ity, the cor­ner­stone of our val­ues, then it needs to be ex­tended ev­ery week, to per­me­ate ev­ery de­part­ment and gov­ern ev­ery de­ci­sion. It needs to be part – with the pro-sci­ence agenda also vis­i­ble in Gov­ern­ment an­nounce­ments – of a vi­sion for the fu­ture clearly iden­ti­fied with Bri­tain and its lead­ers.

If that can be achieved, open­ing a head­quar­ters in Leeds will be a very small de­tail. But the peo­ple sit­ting in­side it will re­ally have some­thing to say.

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