The result of the last general election wasn’t just a substantial victory for the Conservatives but a marker for a new era in British politics. It was as significant as Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979, where she gained a majority of 43, drawing hundreds of thousands of votes away from Labour’s traditional support base. The same happened again in 2019, as life-long Labour supporters voted Conservative for the first time.
For my party, "Getting Brexit Done" will mean very little if we cannot keep our promises to these voters, who have felt left behind for too long. Brexit exposed the reality that the UK has become a tale of two countries - of London and the South East vs the rest. In this divided nation, a metropolitan elite, inhabiting the ‘beltway’ in London over successive governments, has disproportionately benefitted from comfortable arrangements that suited them often to the detriment of the rest of the UK.
Whilst London and the South East have the highest productivity in the EU, other regions of the UK are lagging behind. It is from these regions that Boris Johnson gained votes for the first time and now we must deliver to them.
How can we achieve this? Staring us in the face as the next phase of the negotiations starts are some quick wins to support these blue collar Tories, who placed their trust in us.
First, once we officially leave, we must do a much better job than we have done so far in the next negotiating round. The EU have it all mapped out, they believe they have us over a barrel and are toughening their position. From what they understand in their conversations with civil servants, the UK will seek trade talks first with the EU before commencing any serious talks with the USA.
As the EU drags its feet into March before they deign to start talks with the UK, they appear certain that we will only go through the motions with the USA. Yet this early skirmish is one we must win. We have to confound the EU’s expectations and engage with the United States immediately.
There are two good reasons why we should do this. The first is that the USA is a high growth market in goods, agri-products and services, which is at least as comprehensive as that of the EU. That’s why an early and proper arrangement with the USA will worry the EU, since it renders the EU deal correspondingly less vital to the UK. Second, an early deal with the USA would deliver cheaper prices in the UK, benefitting Blue Collar voters the most.
To do this we have to be deadly serious about negotiations with the USA and not just go through the motions. We should look at sectoral deals in advance of a full agreement, such as manufacturing. Furthermore, we mustn’t absurdly rule out divergence on food in advance.
Nothing more illustrates the metropolitan elites' disdain for the USA than the issue of American food. How they bleat on about so called chlorinated chicken and hormone induced beef. Yet figures show that for all their chest beating about lower quality food across the Atlantic, the USA has fewer deaths per capita than the UK from infections like campylobacter and salmonella. Reducing the cost of living for blue collar workers would be an enormous win.
Brexit was also about migration. According to Migration Watch, the UK has taken in approximately 1 million migrants every three years. There is clear evidence that this has put huge pressure on housing, education and healthcare. Furthermore, it is clear that large scale migration has also depressed wages for blue collar workers. The Conservatives have the chance as we leave to create a migration system that controls and reduces the scale of migration, easing the pressure on so many hard pressed families who voted for change.
It is worth pointing out that the UK has a very poor record on in-work progression. Only around a fifth of those who start work at entry-level positions go on to rise above that. The ability of companies to bring workers in at lower rates has meant that too few UK companies invest in skills or progression training, leaving people stuck with low skills on basic pay. Blue collar workers who aspire to improve their lives have cried out for something to change and the Conservative government must show it has listened.
Of course, there is much more we must do in the longer term to improve the UK beyond London such as investing in infrastructure, communications and technology but we must deliver now as well.
This is not a departure from Conservatism, it is all about Conservative principles in action - free trade, fair competition and rewarding aspiration. It is what won the election. Critically, Brexit has the capacity to help us harness our country’s greatest resource - our people - and through our principles deliver to those who were left behind. In this we must not fail