A group of Conservative MPs is trying to inject new life into David Cameron's stalled project to modernise the party by producing a raft of new policy ideas.
Tory modernisers admit the optimistic vision of “compassionate Conservatism” Mr Cameron set out after becoming party leader in 2005 was derailed by the need to cut spending in the age of austerity.
Now the economy is growing again, they want to ensure the Tories have an upbeat, positive message at next year’s general election. Some are worried that, in an attempt to see off the threat from Ukip, the Tories will fight the election on a negative, pessimistic agenda focusing on issues such as immigration and welfare cuts. They fear that this could revive claims that the Tories are “the nasty party.”
Modernisers are drawing up their own shopping list of social as well as economic policies for the party’s manifesto which will cover areas not normally seen as “Tory issues”. For example, they will call for mental health, seen as the “Cinderella of the NHS,” to be given equal priority to other health services.
The 2020 Group includes about a quarter of the 303 Tory MPs and many of them entered Parliament at the last election. It is not a left or right faction within the party but promotes “a modern progressive Conservatism.”
Greg Barker, the Energy and Climate Change Minister and co-founder of the group, told The Independent: “Change, hope and optimism was the clarion call of David Cameron's leadership campaign in 2005 and underpinned the sense of change and new ambition he brought to the Conservative Party. But since then, Labour took our country to the brink of ruin, into the deepest recession of modern times and together with their reckless public spending, changed the terms of political trade.”
Mr Barker added: “The world has moved on dramatically since 2005. The 2020 Conservatives have set about refuelling that original, optimistic and aspirational agenda with progressive and challenging ideas, right for our times.” He said the group would put forward “transformational policies which also paint a picture of what an aspirational Britain could look like by the end of the decade, proving that far from being driven into silos, progressive Conservatives are reaching out right across the political agenda.”
The group’s first submission to the Tory manifesto process, published Monday, calls for a major drive to boost productivity by making better use of resources instead of relying on cutting labour costs. It says that Britain is lagging behind its rivals in areas such as recycling and “remanufacturing” so that materials or parts have a second or third life. It urges the Government to transfer responsibility for waste from the Environment to the Business department.
Laura Sandys, the Tory MP who wrote the report, “Sweating our Assets,” said such a push could result in a 12 per cent increase in annual profits for manufacturers; create more than 300,000 jobs in the “remanufacturing sector”; improve Britain’s balance of payments by £20 billion by 2020 and save £3 billion by reduced landfill costs and retaining the value of resources.
Cameron allies reject criticism that he is a pragmatist who lacks vision. But some MPs admit that his “Big Society” theme at the 2010 election was too vague and flopped. They want to ensure that next year’s manifesto is full of pragmatic “real world” policies that answer the question: what would Mr Cameron do if he wins an overall majority next year?
Some modernisers fear that Lynton Crosby, the Australian strategist running the Tory campaign, will want to focus on the economy, immigration and welfare cuts rather than “softer” social issues.
Nicky Morgan, a Treasury minister and member of the 2020 Group, warned last month that the Tories could win only if they did not use the language of “hate” and being “anti-this” and “anti-that” but needed a positive message.
“We need a bit of sunshine now that the economic clouds are lifting,” one Tory MP said — a reference to a 2006 speech by Mr Cameron in which he said: “Let sunshine win day.” He also argued that the economy should be about GWB (general well being) as well as GDP (gross domestic product).