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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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

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