28 September 2019

A Tory story


Boris Johnson’s first party conference speech as Prime Minister should be a moment of triumph, in which the nation’s attention is fixed on its new leader.

Instead, thanks to this week’s Supreme Court ruling, he will be competing for airtime with a sitting Parliament, and one whose members are in tempestuous spirits.

Still, with an election looming, Johnson will certainly at least try to use his big set piece to offer the country a vision of what his premiership is for. Its centrepiece will undoubtedly be getting us out of the EU, but it must also start to flesh out a coherent domestic agenda.

The Prime Minister has admittedly taken the top job at a time when delivering Brexit is the only game in town, while also facing the perennial challenge for a governing party of renewing its policy offer while still trying to run the country.

The challenge is the same one Theresa May faced in 2016, but was ultimately unable to grip. Put simply, too many people’s lives are harder than they ought to be, and too few voters feel they have a stake in our society.

This week, CapX’s editor-in-chief Robert Colvile (wearing his other hat as Director of the Centre for Policy Studies) published a new paper called Popular Capitalism, outlining what a modern free-market agenda could and should look like.

As Robert pointed out, if you are not able to save, own a home or feel safe on your own streets, you are not really in command of your own destiny. For those of us who wear the free-market badge with pride, that is of deep concern.

It is deeply concerning too if you think the Conservative Party should be not simply an election-winning machine, but a force for progress and prosperity. Robert cites polling, from the CPS and others, showing that the Conservative Party is no longer associated with a host of what were once its core values – from low taxes to helping people better themselves and supporting the elderly.

As Robert writes: “This is not merely a problem for the Conservative Party. It is a problem because the Tories are traditionally the ones who have done most to champion the values, ideals and policies that have been proven to deliver prosperity.”

So why is it the case that many Britons feel disfranchised? To listen to Labour, who unveiled their own smorgasbord of statism at their conference this week, it’s all down to greedy, unscrupulous capitalists determined to grind ordinary workers into the dust. The remedy? A dollop of government intervention in just about every area of the economy, combined with attacks on the hard left favourite pantomime villains – private schools, landlords and the City of London.

The real explanation is not excessive economic freedom, but a lack of it. Where things are going wrong in our economy, it is generally because the tried-and-tested mechanisms for driving prosperity – competition, innovation and choice – are either misfiring or completely absent.

From a clunky, often overcomplicated tax system to expensive transport and a property ladder that seems out of reach, working hard and getting on – that foundational tenet of modern conservatism – has never seemed more of a challenge.

Addressing that means a raft of liberalising policies, such as those regularly advocated here on CapX.

But it also means framing those policies in a moral argument about capitalism, and hitting back at the idea that free enterprise only favours the greedy or selfish. The watchword of the campaign that inspired millions to vote Leave was control, and ultimately that is what a properly functioning market economy offers people – control over their own destiny and the space to shape their own lives.

When backed up with the right policies, it’s a powerful, politically persuasive story. And unlike the yarn Jeremy Corbyn has been spinning for the last few years, it has the significant benefit of being true.

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John Ashmore is Acting Editor of CapX