The Agenda


The Conservative Party is having its annual conference in Manchester this year, a departure from past years when party conferences would take place in England’s various seaside resorts. Fraser Nelson, the new editor of The Spectator, explains the shift:

Why a Monday start? And why Manchester? The seaside resorts were chosen when party conferences were rallies of the grassroot members, and venues were chosen for their supply of cheap (usually B&B) accommodation. Now, most people who attend are the new breed of political professionals who are not paying their own hotel bills. Lobbyists, quangocrats, NGO advisers, journalists, the whole lot. … There are fewer and fewer grassroot activists who do it for love. The reason for starting conference in a weekend was to let those activists get back to work. For the political pros now stuffing the conferences, this is work – don’t blame the Tories for starting on a Monday in Manchester – but it is a sign of the steady professionalisation of politics. And I don’t mean that in a good way. 

Many NR readers find David Cameron’s transformation of the Conservatives dispiriting. His efforts to “modernize” the party are often interpreted as a leftward lurch. I take a somewhat more favorable view. My sense is that Cameron has been far too accommodating on Britain’s National Health Service. Indeed, his stance on the NHS is arguably to the left of Labour, which is a scandal. Yet it is a fairly predictable political decision given the landscape, one that resembles the recent tendency of Republican lawmakers to defend Medicare in the same apocalyptic tones once used by Democrats. And it’s also true that Cameron hasn’t been as forthright as he should be regarding the spending cuts that Britain will have to endure over the coming years. He acknowledges that cuts have to be made and that Britain faces a fiscal emergency (see this report on the country’s public finances from The Economist), which is more than can be said of some politicians, but I wish he’d hammer the point more aggressively. The danger, again, is that he’ll be demagogued by Labour.

Labour’s attack on the Conservatives has been contradictory: he’s a dangerous right-wing ideologue and he’s an opportunist with no convictions. But now the consensus is that the Labour party has settled on the dangerous right-wing ideologue narrative, and to that end they maintain that Conservatives are gleeful about slashing public spending. Having emphasized their “compassionate” credentials, this kind of attack has lost its force. The Conservatives have instead focused on introducing choice, competition, and accountability into public programs. This had been part of Blair’s agenda, yet it was undermined by intense resistance within the Labour Party. Michael Gove, one of the bright lights of Cameron’s shadow cabinet, has done a brilliant job of selling the party’s ambitious plan to embrace Swedish-style school choice, which allows parents and charities and for-profit firms to establish schools that would then compete with state schools. And they’re also pushing an ambitious welfare reform agenda spearheaded by David Freud, who recently defected from Labour, and the slightly disappointing Theresa May.

So far, the Conservatives have been cautious about offering tax cuts. They’ve proposed tweaks here and there, but they’ve also accepted some of Labour’s more egregious tax hikes in response to the looming debt crisis. At the same time, the party seems increasingly receptive to tax cuts designed to spur job creation. My hope is that they will, like the Canadian Liberals, create a very transparent, open process for sharply reducing government spending once in office, and that they will then pursue an agenda of tax-cutting and tax-simplification. After spending time with a lot of sharp Conservative thinkers, I sense that this is their intention: to gain credibility on spending before they make promises they can’t keep. 

For a sense of Cameron’s rhetoric, check out his recent comment in The Daily Telegraph

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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