What the Tories should look for in their next leader

9 July 2022

4:30 PM

9 July 2022

4:30 PM

The Conservatives are selecting a new leader, who will become Prime Minister. What sort of a person should that be? It needs to be someone with the spark or edge of a leader, able to carry others with them – not just a clubbable ‘Yes Man’ type. It needs to be someone able to press a vision and policy agenda across a range of issues, not just something narrow like finance, defence, international relations or legal issues.

It needs to be someone able to convey an optimistic message, but have a serious mode that can be turned on when necessary. Someone who is willing to be unpopular, taking tough decisions when necessary with the confidence that vindication will come later, who trusts that the truth is the Conservative’s greatest political friend.

The above personality traits are necessary, but personality should not be the defining matter at this election. The party is in government, and governments (unlike oppositions) ultimately succeed or fail on policy not personality.

When it comes to policy, the first requirement is to have some answer to the great issue of the day: inflation. They to declare he or she will take responsibility for controlling inflation, not simply spend taxpayers’ money to try to mitigate its effects. That doesn’t have to mean promising to get it down instantly. But it does mean accepting that controlling inflation is the government’s responsibility – unlike Boris who seemed determined to blame inflation on anyone or anything else.

Next, they need to express a commitment to cutting public expenditure and then keeping it down. Boris and Sunak created a legacy of boosting spending as the answer to every challenge or crisis. We need to see spending come back down.

A Conservative leader should believe in markets. Market mechanisms – households and businesses taking their own decisions, guided and constrained by regulation – should be the first port of call for policymakers. That doesn’t necessarily mean mass deregulation or empty talk of a ‘bonfire of red tape’. It means genuinely using markets, rather than (as Boris often did) seeing them as populated by rapacious capitalists. It also means not being afraid of market mechanisms in the public sector.

Having left the EU the UK has set out on a path into the wider world, with new trade deals and collaborative pacts with Australia, Japan and New Zealand, with close collaboration with Canada on many questions as well. The next PM needs to commit to continuing down that path, rather than dragging us back into parochial regional interests in Europe.

This leadership election may determine whether wokeness becomes a consensus issue in British politics or a dividing line across the parties. A new Conservative leader ought to be clearly and unequivocally anti-woke, but without that spilling over into harshness or unpleasantness.

A slew of new tech is coming: AI, autonomous vehicles, commercial exploitation of space, lab-grown meat, new cancer vaccines and many others. A new leader needs to be a tech optimist, with a desire to see Britain lie at the forefront of these advances.

A new leader needs pragmatism and realism on green issues – neither pretending climate change can be wished away nor imagining that curtailing economic growth is an answer, and making a geopolitical virtue of having a range of sources of energy. We need to combine mitigation with adaptation, and to use market mechanisms rather than prohibitions to help get us there.

Britain has long been a country open to immigration, and a new leader ought to welcome that continuing, but be resolute, determined and unapologetic in getting illegal immigration under proper control once again.

A Conservative leader needs to be determined to make Britain an entity worthy of Scots and Northern Irish folk wanting to belong to. The fundamental way to preserve the union is not to make concessions to nationalists. It is to make Britain attractive and worthy enough that nationalism is defeated.

Such a policy agenda would command very widespread support across the Conservative party. It would not always be popular with the media and some elements would attract passionate opposition. A Conservative Prime Minister cannot be too needy of adulation.

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the above agenda would win the next general election. But a new leader will have a little over two years left to make a difference, leaving her or his mark by doing the right thing.

Be worthy, and trust the voters. That is always the best play, but it is really the only play from here.

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