Tufton Street is hallowed ground for British conservatism. Hidden away from the political bedlam consuming the rest of Westminster, this quiet turning and its thinkers have arguably shaped our modern politics and economy more than any other road bar Downing Street.
It was the base for Leave Means Leave, Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign group, numerous Eurosceptic think tanks and the TaxPayers’ Alliance, which campaigns for a smaller state.
Next door in a smart Georgian terrace house is the think tank that spearheaded the Thatcher revolution and is positioned to lead the next wave of conservative ideas. The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) was co-founded by the Iron Lady herself and remains the most influential think tank for Tory MPs. Sir Graham Brady, Conservative MP and CPS deputy chairman, explains it was “the engine for the thinking that propelled the Thatcher government”.
The CPS built on the work done by the Institute of Economic Affairs in arguing that the country’s economic model needed to be overhauled after the ructions of the Seventies. But four decades later some of the ideas that have transformed Britain’s economy are themselves under attack.
December’s election will be fought on Brexit battlelines, but it will also pose fundamental questions on how voters want the economy run. Many, even on the right, have strayed from the economic liberalism espoused by Thatcherites. The challenge for the CPS is to fight back against a narrative gathering momentum that capitalism is not working for many voters.
Robert Colvile, its director, says the failure to present “the glorious sunlit upland vision of what we’re going to do for the country” in recent election campaigns has made it easier to “sell this false narrative that the Tories only care about international bankers and billionaires.
“And that tarnishes the reputation not just of the Conservative Party, but of capitalism in general,” he says. “It’s really important to counter that, and Boris is actually one of the people who can counter that. He is an optimistic, sunlit uplands kind of guy.”
He says solving the housing crisis is “an absolutely vital thing to get right” when restoring younger voters’ faith in capitalism. Those pressures on the economic system are being laid bare in the election campaign. Many fiscal conservatives will have to hold their nose when voting for the huge boost to spending on public services outlined by Boris Johnson, one area where the ideological chasm with Jeremy Corbyn has actually narrowed. Following Theresa May’s disastrous 2017 campaign, Johnson is attempting to avoid being outmaneuvered on public spending by Corbyn.
While he may argue that Labour’s anti-business policies will turn back the clock, his own spending plans would increase the size of the state to levels last seen in the Seventies, the Resolution Foundation said last week. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says the funding boost for government departments in the spending round was almost as large as the one outlined in Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto.
Ruth Lea, a CPS director during the Blair era, says the think tank now needs to “keep nipping at the heels to keep the state in control. It is all too easy to just keep on increasing public spending because it is a nice thing to do but at the end of the day it needs to be paid for,” she says.
Colvile admits there has been a “change in focus” on spending and says it is evident “that the austerity period has come to an end. It was very, very clear after 2017 that the Conservatives had not given the voters many positive reasons to vote for them.
“The manifesto was pretty much the opposite of a retail offer.”
Policies by the CPS are likely to be littered across this election’s Conservative manifesto that will look to provide a firm rebuttal to Corbyn’s hard-Left vision for Britain. The think tank’s proposals have already proved highly influential in Johnson’s government.
It has adopted CPS’s policy of lifting the National Insurance threshold to in line with income tax. In addition, Rishi Sunak, chief secretary to the Treasury, first outlined his plan for free ports in a report for CPS. Sir Graham says the “reactive and short-term” nature of politics means “think tanks are more important than ever” in providing a “reflective kind of policy making”.
While conservative thinking has been accused of stagnating in recent years, think tanks and research groups of the right could play a key role in plotting Britain’s path forward after Brexit. If Johnson wins a majority, it will be his government that will play the defining role in making the trade deals and new rules of regulation for the post-Brexit economy.
Colvile says Brexit “forces you to do things differently”, and Britain needs to pitch itself as the “best country in the world” in which to invest and to grow a business: “We would favour lower taxes, an economy that is dynamic and gives people more of their own money to spend, especially towards the bottom of the wage scale.”
First, Johnson must see off Corbyn, needing to inspire voters in seats the Tories would never have dreamt of targeting before the Brexit vote. Colvile says it is a “good thing” they have to appeal “to ordinary, hard-working aspirational Britons. The best cure for populism is to show people how you can make their lives better.”