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Good news about manifesto planning for the next election

by Paul Goodman

LETWIN OLIVER 2 It's clearly important that the Party has its own policy-making programme up and running well before the next election - and that it isn't merged by stealth with that of the Liberal Democrats.  (The Downing Street Policy Unit can make policy only for the Coalition, not the Party.)

This is why I wrote recently that Graham Brady, the 1922 Committee Chairman, should issue David Cameron an ultimatum next summer if Downing Street has, by then, made no move to form party policy for the next election.

Today, there's encouraging news to report.

Oliver Letwin has written a letter to all MPs headed: "Conservative Party policy development".  Its main points are -

  • A Conservative Policy Forum (CPF) programme will be launched on January 27.
  • Five CPF policy groups will be formed.  MPs will be able to sit on these groups.
  • These will mirror the five policy groups set up by the 1922 Committee (which cover the economy, home affairs, foreign affairs, the public services and the environment).  "We are working with Graham Brady to ensure that these complement the work of the 1922 Committee."
  • A group of MPs will form a "drafting group", "pulling together all the identified challenges into a final policy document".
  • Robert Halfon will be an "MP representative on the CPF Council".
  • The Party is "keen to identify an MP in each region to help coordinate and drive forward the setting up of constituency-based CPF groups".
The letter is accompanied by a brief "Issues Document" - a letter covering two sides of paper which -
  • Looks back to the policy-making process during the last Parliament.
  • Claims that "in the course of the coalition negotiations, most of our Opposition programme was maintained".
  • Adds that "we found that a combination of our parties’ best ideas and attitudes produced a programme for government that was even more radical and comprehensive than our separate manifestos".

- and says -

"But we can’t sit back and think our work will be done in 2012, when our reforms will be well on the way to full implementation. Britain will change, and with that change will come new challenges. We need to look ahead to the future challenges that Britain will face in 2015, 2020 and beyond. And that’s where you come in. Individually, in groups, talking to experts, liaising with your local MP, working within the newly-invigorated Conservative Policy Forum, we want you to think through the challenges that Britain will face in the years to come."

It goes on -

"We want you to ask key questions such as:

  • What will be the state of Britain in 2015 and 2020?
  • How will the government’s current structural reform programme change Britain – and what new challenges will emerge as a result of that change?
  • What are the likely economic, social, security and environmental pressures which we will face in 2015 and 2020?

In particular, beyond the coalition’s programme for government, we want you to look at which questions we will need to ask to be able to:

  • rise to the challenge of an ageing population and other demographic changes;
  • keep our nation and citizens safe amidst the new security challenges at home and overseas;
  • make the most of changes in technology and innovation, and support enterprise;
  • ensure we have an adequate skills base to meet the future demands of the market;
  • respond to increasing pressures on our natural resources and changes to our global climate;
  • meet the economic challenges and opportunities of emerging economies;
  • ensure policy takes account of geographical differences in our nation;
  • strengthen the family, help the vulnerable and poor in our society, and tackle the causes of poverty; and,
  • support ‘big citizens’ and the ‘Big Society’?

These are just some of the areas we want you to look into. We want you to think as widely and as deeply as possible."

There are criticisms that can be made of the letter and questions that arise from it, for example -

  • The list of key questions is extremely thin.  There's nothing substantial about constitutional issues, for example.
  • The Coalition isn't more "radical and comprehensive" than the Conservative manifesto, and this claim suggests that governing with the Liberal Democrats is better than governing alone.
  • It isn't clear to what degree, if at all, Conservative Cabinet members and other Ministers will be involved in this process.  I gather that this will vary from Department to Department: that if the Minister in question's enthusiastic about it, he'll consult with the groups and see their papers - but that if he isn't, he won't.
  • It's not evident what status the final document will have, or how it will be considered when the manifesto's written.
  • How CPF members of the five groups will be selected isn't set out.
  • How local CPF groups will relate to the five groups isn't established.

None the less, Letwin's letter is very welcome.  It sets out a policy formation proposal in which the voluntary party will be involved, a means of dovetailing it with the '22s own work, and a plan to give what emerges final form in a single document.  The appointment of Robert Halfon confirms that the Parliamentary Party - and not just Downing Street and CCHQ - will make a real contribution to what takes place.

Tim's set out previously his own ideas for the '22, which are worth glancing back at.  Natalie Elphicke has charge of the recently-revived CPC.  The Party Board floated a proposal similar to that now announced by Letwin, but with a more structured relationship with Ministers.  Final point: the Party would do better to make a big thing of briefing the plan - as it does to so many others - rather than simply allowing the news simply to leak out.


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