The Tories' hardline 2015 manifesto is taking shape

Conservative ministers have been trailing right-wing policies for post-coalition life.

We've heard plenty about the Lib Dems' "differentiation strategy" in the last year, but surprisingly few have noted the Conservatives' equivalent. On Europe, welfare, human rights law and employment regulation, Tory ministers now routinely say what a Conservative government would do differently to the coalition. At last night's meeting of the 1922 Committee, David Cameron promised his MPs that the party would go into the next election "with a clear Eurosceptic position": expect the 2015 Conservative manifesto to include a commitment to hold an EU referendum (likely offering voters a choice between looser membership and withdrawal). Below, I've compiled a list of other Tory-pleasing policies set to make an appearance.

Even deeper and harsher welfare cuts

George Osborne wanted to announce £10bn of welfare cuts in the Autumn Statement but the Lib Dems limited him to £3.8bn. Expect a promise of deeper cuts to appear in the manifesto.

It's also likely that Tory welfare proposals blocked by Nick Clegg's party, such as the abolition of housing benefit for the under-25s and the restriction of child benefit for families with more than two children, will feature. Other policies trailed by David Cameron in his welfare speech in the summer included:

- Preventing teenagers from claiming benefits as soon as they leave school.

- Paying benefits in kind (like free school meals), rather than in cash.

- Reducing benefit levels for the long-term unemployed.

- A lower housing benefit cap. Cameron said that the current limit of £20,000 was still too high. 

Some or all of those could appear in the manifesto.

For-profit free schools

Early on in the coalition's life, Nick Clegg made it clear that he would veto any move to introduce for-profit free schools, viewed by some Tories as the key to transforming the education system. But when he appeared before the Leveson inquiry, Michael Gove indicated that they could be established under a Conservative majority government.

The Education Secretary remarked that unlike some of his coalition colleagues, "who are very sceptical of the benefits of profit", he had an "open mind", adding: "I believe that it may be the case that we can augment the quality of state education by extending the range of people involved in its provision."

Withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights

The Conservatives have become increasingly hostile towards the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which has prevented the deportation of Abu Qatada and forced the government to consider extending voting rights to some prisoners, but Lib Dem obstructionism has prevented reform. The commission set up to examine the proposed British Bill of Rights, split as it was between Cameron and Clegg nominees, failed to reach agreement when it published its report this week.

But in an article for the Daily Telegraph, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling wrote: "I will also be looking clearly towards the next election, and starting work on ensuring that we have a real plan for change then as well." Rather than merely replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, which would still allow UK citizens to petition the ECHR, it's increasingly likely that the Tories will promise to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the court and leave the European Convention on Human Rights altogether (a position recently supported by former justice minister Nick Herbert). Such a move would require David Cameron to replace Attorney General Dominic Grieve, an avowed defender of the ECHR, but a post-election reshuffle could take care of that.

Hire-and-fire employment laws

Vince Cable ensured that a Tory proposal to allow employers to fire workers at will (contained in the now-infamous report by Conservative donor Adrian Beecroft) didn't become law, but Downing Street made it clear that it approved of the plan and it is likely to feature in the party's election offering.

David Cameron and George Osborne are already dropping hints about what the Conservatives' 2015 election manifesto will look like. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.