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Sir Edward Leigh MP: After a weak Queen's Speech, we could lose the next election - unless we change course

Edward Leigh is MP for Gainsborough

LEIGH edward MPTo put it simply: something must be done about the Conservative party.

Not only has the membership declined precipitously – losing more than half our members since 2005 – but there is a worrying exodus of party activists. While we are on top in 2009’s European election, the most recent opinion poll for next year’s vote gives UKIP a 4% lead over Labour, with our party relegated to third.

Clearly UKIP do not have a chance of forming the next government, but it’s obvious that voters will use the European elections to deliver a message to the Tory party, and to the country.  This isn’t just about our relationship with Europe, but is an expression of the profound alienation that former core Tory voters now feel towards the party they once supported.

It’s obvious we need to look at the situation with clear eyes and find appropriate solutions.

First, we need to dump a whole raft of policies. I refer to the ones which are not merely rubbish to begin with, but doubly daft for being unpopular with voters – Tory or otherwise.

I have long been a passionate advocate of strong and effective spending on Britain’s overseas aid budget, but we need to tear up the 0.7% commitment of GDP. Not only is it entirely arbitrary, but it decreases when the economy is poorer, even though this is when developing countries are even more likely to need our help and assistance.

Britain has a long and deep humanitarian tradition which must be maintained: there are people in need around the world and we have to help them when we can. But we should spend what is needed when it is needed and how it is needed, not commit ourselves to arbitrary decimal figures plucked from the sky.

High Speed 2 is perhaps the greatest government boondoggle in the making. From my time as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee examining waste in government spending, I know how easy it is for initial cost estimates to balloon out of control and beyond any measure that responsible, democratically elected representatives would approve.

HS2 will provide relief only to the few companies to gain government contracts from it while tearing through Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Even more foolishly, the cost will direct money away from conventional rail infrastructure that is badly in need of investment. We should instead commit to proper investment in everyday trains for commuters and intercity travellers across the whole rail network.

Same-sex civil marriage, besides being wrong, has also done irreparable damage to our electoral prospects. It’s now passed the Lords, but some of the damage can be healed by ensuring there are adequate protections for conscientious objectors, especially chaplains, teachers, and registrars in the public sector. The Government claims that existing protections are enough and that the courts will uphold such, but recent court cases leave exceptionally broad room for doubt on this. The very point of parliamentary scrutiny is for these problems to be flagged during the legislative process so that we avoid clogging the courts with cases that would be rendered unnecessary by providing adequate protections like, for example, expanding the Equality Act to add beliefs relating to marriage as a protected characteristic.

Secondly: we need an economic strategty that is conservatively coherent. This Government has so far relied on piecemeal patchwork actions – a little tweaking here, a little there – to try and spark a recovery from one of the worst economic crises of living memory. Instead, we should be offering a clear vision of the way forward. Cutting taxes, especially those which immediately affect everyday life (like fuel duty) would have an instant effect benefiting individuals, families, and small businesses.

How to pay for it? There are still oceans of waste in welfare, health, and DFID. We have to be as militant as the private sector in delivering efficiency savings every year, with no sacred cows. And no business ring-fences whole sections of its budget from cuts.

We must also extract a radical overhaul of Britain’s tax system, now the most labyrinthine in the world – with a tax code even longer than India’s. Introducing a dramatically flatter tax structure while eliminating loopholes would be easier for wage-earners and businesses to pay as well as cheaper for the state to collect.

A clearly stated idea of what the government’s economic plans and priorities would be an immense boon to the confidence of consumers and investors. There must be no return to Heathonomics. Up to this point in the Coalition we have had government by reaction rather than government setting the agenda.

Cutting taxes isn’t enough, though. The vast level of NHS spending must be brought into play, as other countries provide far more effective systems for a lower level of tax outlay.

Thirdly, voters are worried about our relationship with the European Union: the rise of UKIP proves this. Immigration – whether from within the EU or from outside – is an increasing concern for many voters, not just the former Tory core. The Prime Minister is right to offer the people of Great Britain an In/Out referendum, but why are we waiting until 2017?

The Congress of Vienna took nine months, the Treaty of Versailles was agreed to in six. We need to start a clear, frank, and open debate on what we want Britain’s endpoint within the European Union to be, and to begin building alliances with other governments in Europe now to work towards a rebalancing of the powers of the member states and the European Union. Not only is it bad for the country, but dithering any longer merely risks feeding the UKIP tiger.

This recent Queen’s Speech laid out the weakest legislative programme in recent memory

There wasn’t a single bill in it that Labour could genuinely object to on second reading. If we don’t provide voters with a clear alternative to Labour and LibDem policy, we are not just depriving them of the chance for government based on sound conservative principles, but undermining the entire democratic process.

A group of like-minded Members of Parliament – the Centre-Right Steering Group – have been coming together in recent weeks to question the path the leadership are taking and to scrutinise their policies. This group of MPs, young and old, has been meeting every week to discuss coordinated, constructive actions that can be taken to put the party and the country back on track.

We believe this government has not yet been a failure and that the Conservative party, even in coalition, has made some steady progress worthy of praise. Just look at the success Iain Duncan Smith is having: voters are fed up with dishing out benefits. Michael Gove’s reforms – especially his Free Schools initiative – are laying the groundwork for lasting change in British education. (I think we should go further and let heads set their own curriculum and hire and fire whatever teachers they like: the secret of private schools’ success.)

William Hague is instilling new confidence in the Foreign Office as an institution while building stronger ties with innumerable friends abroad. The recent empowerment of local communities to refuse permission for wind farms is the perfect example of the Government listening to the concerns of the country and responding to people’s needs. But these successes alone won’t win the voters’ trust.

We need to build on this foundation of progress. Two years from now, a general election will be held. For the Conservative leadership to rely on Ed Miliband’s incompetence is playing a dangerous game. Oppositions don’t win elections: governments lose them. I want – we all want – the Conservatives to win the next election, but unless there is a change of course, and a firming-up of our Conservative instincts, we could lose the election. Not because Labour is popular or considered more competent, but because a percentage of our people peel away to the right. They must be enticed back.

We don’t think the party should “swerve right” or “tack to the centre”. The Conservative Party was once a coalition of various interests pursuing common goals. We need a United Kingdom Conservative Party. Let’s fess up when we’ve made a mistake, and then look for sensible, cost-effective solutions. Let’s find a vision of what the economy should be, and have the confidence to act upon it. And let’s get to work on getting the best deal out of Europe so that we can flourish alongside our neighbours – and indeed with the rest of the world. Above all, we need popular policies that will help the ordinary man on the street.

If we do these things, we can go into a general election with heads held high, and the voters will get behind us. There’s still time, but the Government has to act now.


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