Tim Montgomerie has scored something of a coup for ConHome with his revelations recently about the doubts of Cabinet Ministers on Lansley’s NHS Bill. The story has dominated the media agenda for a day and a half, and is clearly an acute embarrassment to the government, and especially to the Conservative Party.
The three dissenting ministers remain anonymous, but knowing Tim a bit as I do, I am quite prepared to believe what he says. And it says something rather worrying about the state of cabinet government in Westminster if these ministers feel that they can talk to ConHome, but not to the Prime Minister.
The whole NHS debate is complex and technical. I am satisfied that the NHS needs urgent reform, and that key elements of this reform need to be a reduction in excessive administration, and more commercial involvement. We know that competition delivers superior performance for supermarkets, airlines, telephone companies. So why does Ed Miliband get the heebie-jeebies about the idea of competition in health provision?
I am yet to be convinced that Lansley’s specific plans in the NHS bill are going to work, and I am listening to Stephen Dorrell and others who argue that most of the objectives could have been achieved within the existing legislative framework, without a confrontational and divisive new Bill. The Bill gives the opposition a banner around which to rally. No surprise that Labour, who hate the private sector, and the producer interest, who like Arthur Scargill hate the idea of competition and the profit motive, should rally against it.
We have the need, we have the plan, but the presentation has certainly been appalling, and here we have to blame Lansley. He hasn’t sold it. Someone suggested on television that he should be tasked with setting out his case in a 140-character Tweet. This would be a good idea, and maybe I as a Conservative parliamentarian could get my head round a clear, simple case for the Bill, which I could use to commend it (and indeed to convince myself of its benefits).
It’s not just the NHS. We seem to have a series of policies which are very difficult for politicians to defend, and difficult to get Party members and voters enthused about. Take pension reform: nearly everyone agrees that public service pensions need radical reform to achieve both fairness and affordability. Yet here we seem to have a lack of resolve, with so many concessions made to the unions that according to some reports, the current plan on the table may save little, or even cost more than the status quo.
On welfare (and I’m very gung-ho about IDS’s plans, which could transform our society and working culture), we have started to sound worried about the predictable attacks from Labour. Of course some families on welfare living in expensive properties in inner London will have to move out. But the average “hard-working family” can’t afford to live there, so why should a family on welfare do better? We need to stick to our guns.
On tax, we know what we ought to do, but we’re afraid to do it. We stick with the 50% income tax rate for purely presentational reasons, because we lack the courage to go out and argue our case for jobs and growth. We accept Nick-Clegg’s zero-sum assumption on tax-and-spend, when we should be talking about self-funding tax cuts — like NI holidays for young workers. We should be more decisive in slapping down the Lib-Dem “bash the rich” proposals like ending higher-rate tax relief on pensions, and the proposed mansion tax. We need to match fiscal continence with a growth strategy, which must mean lower taxes.
On education, I applaud Michael Gove’s vision for schools. This is one of the best policy areas for the Party. But all the Labour-style emphasis on “fair access” to universities, and the proposed appointment of Vince Cable’s protégé Professor Ebdon as “Fair Access Tsar”, is a slap in the face for our best universities. It shows a determination to dumb-down, to oppose achievement and excellence. University admissions should be based on academic performance, plain and simple. Nothing else.
We are also picking the wrong battles, with grand political gestures that don’t stand up to scrutiny, which waste money, and which alienate the Party’s natural supporters. Wind farms and HS2 spring to mind. We need clear and credible policies based on conservative principles. I am increasingly doubtful that we will get them from Cameron’s Conservative Party.