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The Conservatives in government should be wary in their treatment of the backbenchers. They both want the same thing – an outright majority in 2015 – and the party leadership should not be dismissive of MPs who are in touch with their constituents. The economy is obviously the central issue, and while the Coalition has made some progress, there is more that can be done. For the Conservatives, Robert Halfon (through the Right Angle campaign) deserves an honourable mention for campaigning for the first £10,000 earned to be tax-free. The Budget was encouraging in the sense that it increased the personal allowance, although it has not yet reached the £10,000 figure.
An area which may come back to haunt the Conservatives in 2015 is the issue of Europe. By whipping MPs to vote against a referendum on our relationship with the EU, the Coalition found itself on a collision course with MPs who understand constituents’ frustrations with Brussels. One of the more notable rebels was Stewart Jackson, who chose to resign his job as PPS to Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson, rather than vote against giving the people a say. I would not be surprised if such a referendum became an issue in the Commons again later in this Parliament.
As well as our relationship with the EU, we must also re-examine the European Court of Human Rights. The Conservatives needs to be seen to be on the side of the “good guys”, and headlines showing criminals exploiting their European rights will harm this perception. It is possible to safeguard the rights of the victim (not the criminals) through British law (not foreign diktat). The Conservative-led Coalition should listen to some of the more sound members of the 2010 intake, such as Priti Patel and Henry Smith. I’m sure we can all remember shocking examples of the ECHR promoting the rights of criminals, and it is up to the Coalition to fix what Labour got wrong on human rights. When Liberal Democrats sing the praises of European integration, it is vital that Conservatives remind them who the dominant party in government is (as well as looking at the state of the Eurozone) even if Ken Clarke is Justice Secretary.
As with the debacle over the EU referendum and the petrol tankers dispute, the way Number 10 handles certain situations leaves a lot to be desired. The same can be said for their recent plans for increased surveillance. Big Brother Watch have already highlighted how the idea is illiberal, and I am surprised that the Government have not put forward a more coherent argument to promote the idea in the interest of national security. As it stands, they don’t seem to have listed why exactly it is needed, and it makes for a big stick to hit both Coalition parties with, following their correct pre-election arguments against New Labour’s controlling state.
On the subject of Labour, it is worth noting that they are promoting themselves as “on your side in tough times”. In spite of the general negativity surrounding Ed Miliband’s leadership, one look at the polls suggests it is unwise to merely dismiss them as an irrelevant opposition. The next election will be a fight, and while I am confident the Conservatives can win the arguments, it remains to be seen whether an overall majority will be won. Although Ed Balls is trying to rehabilitate himself following his time as Gordon Brown’s representative on Earth, Labour cannot be allowed to gain economic credibility. While polls are not everything, it is alarming to see that 72% of those asked for the Independent on Sunday agree that the “Government is out of touch with ordinary voters.” It is essential that this does not become a consensus for Labour to create opportunities.
While coalitions obviously lead to compromise, it is important that all sides remember its composition. The Conservatives – and the Liberal Democrats – should remember which of the parties has the most votes, the most seats, the better polling numbers and greater finances; just in case Nick Clegg (or Chris Huhne) have a tantrum and want to quit the Coalition. Let’s remember that the Lib Dems have longed for coalition government – it was the basis for their support of AV and PR. Conservatives should be able to take the front foot, as if the Lib Dems pulled out, they’d be showing us all a huge flaw in the system of government they’ve always wanted.
In 2015, Labour (subtly) will try and portray Cameron as a Toff. They’ll also (unsubtly) criticise his judgement on Coulson, Brooks, horses, pasties, and everything else in between. John Redwood recently said that Downing Street should stop trying to conceal the Prime Minister’s upbringing, and realise that if the economy picks up then the nonsense about his background will stop. Every time Ed Miliband uses the “born to rule” line, he’d probably have more luck if he started singing it to Springsteen. When Labour go with class war it shows that they have nothing left in the tank. Thankfully for the country, the politics of envy is different to the business of winning elections.
2015 will need to see the Conservatives stand up for their achievements while maintaining a separate identity from the Lib Dems. Granted, Cameron and Clegg battling each other while defending their government’s record may make for interesting TV debates, but the Tories need to ensure their work has succeeded. While some things are still to be desired, it must be remembered that the Coalition have made progress. They have sought to fix the economy, and to make the welfare system fairer. In the recent Budget, the personal allowance was increased. While far from perfect, its attitude towards foreign aid ensures vaccinations against killer diseases. But on everyday issues such as tax-free income, and issues of justice such as human rights, there is still work to do.
It will be difficult to achieve a majority in 2015, but it can be done. If people feel they are better off by polling day, it will be difficult for Labour to have much of a chance. The Conservatives, and the Coalition, need to demonstrate they agree with the hard-working majority in Britain on the issues that matter. This can be done by ensuring there is a visible difference between the party and the Coalition. And this can be done by listening to sound backbenchers.
By Darren Rutland