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
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.