Something strange happened at Prime Minister’s Questions this week. A hard-left Labour leader attacked a Conservative Prime Minister for the recklessness of unfunded promises of extra spending on the NHS.
This topsy-turvy exchange was an early piece of evidence that the 3.4 per cent increase in NHS funding announced by Theresa May on Monday has – politically speaking – worked. It is absurd for Jeremy Corbyn to lecture anyone on fiscal responsibility; that he did so was because his more familiar lines of attack had been blunted.
If the politics of this week’s announcement were about neutralising an issue on which their opponents have a natural advantage, the bigger question about what the Conservative Party should stand for itself remains unanswered – and is set to remain unanswered for some time.
Mayism was met with a shrug from the electorate more than a year ago. But it still isn’t clear what will come after it. The ideological differences between senior Conservatives are considerable. As Bob Seely MP advised on CapX this week, don’t be fooled by Brexit: the divides in the party are much deeper than that. And the argument about what direction to take will not be conclusively settled before a leadership election or maybe even a general election.
What the party therefore needs is a motivating ideal not geared towards one particular faction, or – as with Mayism – centred on a particular part of the electorate. It needs a focus meaningful enough to be worth pursuing but general enough to unite the party and government behind it.
The only good answer to this dilemma is growth.
And yet prosperity, and how to create more of it, is worryingly absent from the conversation in Conservative circles at present. Some are distracted by Brexit. Others are discombobulated by Corbyn’s rise. But there is no good reason for anything other than economic growth being the single most important issue in Conservative minds.
Parties look tired after eight years in office. Growth is the only anti-ageing treatment that works.
Conservatives know this to be true in general terms yet are too complacent about their particular predicament – and the health of the economy they are in charge of.
Britain is on the brink of going in the wrong direction. GDP grew by 0.1 per cent in the first quarter of 2018. If you measure GDP in per capita terms, we are actually getting poorer. The UK is forecast by the OECD to be the slowest growing economy in the G20 this year.
Dismissing such predictions as being part of an international campaign against Brexit, as many have done ever since the EU referendum, will not do. Nor is it good enough for those unhappy we are leaving to point to Brexit and shrug. It may be to blame for many of the headwinds, but there are countless ways of overcoming those challenges that have nothing to do with Britain’s departure from the EU.
This is not just a question of disaster avoidance. Too many have accepted the idea that the days of growing by anything more than one or two per cent a year are behind us. Those who fatalistically wrote off the British economy have been proved wrong before. They can be proved wrong again.
It’s not just the obvious fact that voters getting richer tend to look more favourably on the party in government. It’s also that growth makes more or less everything else easier. It would pay for the NHS funding increase that is at present unfunded. It would transform the domestic Brexit debate, as well as the dynamics of the negotiations. It is the perfect antidote to the zero-sum politics of Jeremy Corbyn, in which one person’s fortune is built on another’s poverty.
As in any party, Conservatives will differ on what they should be doing to bring about the growth the country so badly needs. Agreeing that growth should be the priority would be half the battle.
The government should lead from the front, asking of every proposed policy: “how does this make the country better-off?”
Sooner or later the Conservatives will be reminded that sometimes it really is the economy, stupid. It is up to them whether that reminder comes in the form of victory or defeat.
This article is taken from CapX’s Weekly Briefing email. Sign up here.