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