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Saturday, August 21, 2004
Q&A Weekend 1 - Answers

Q. If the Conservatives lose the next election by 100 seats or more what do you think the party has to do to be re-elected?

A. I covered my view of the right general approach for the Conservatives to take in opposition in a longer essay last year. In short, the party needs to ignore eggheaded theoretical prescriptions that assume the political spectrum is symmetrical, and that simply by moving to the left elections will be won, and instead look at ways to appeal to people's ambitions, to open up a gap of aspiration between ourselves and Labour. The only way we can get back to power is by giving people a clear and good answer to the question "Why vote Conservative?".

We have had a couple of clear reasons to do this for nearly two years - our state scholarships for schools and our health passports. Both of these measures are genuinely radical and will improve things for all those affected. Unfortunately, their radicalism has also meant that we have adopted these policies on the quiet, afraid to make the case for them. This brings the worst of both worlds - we receive the usual attacks for having unconventional policies, but we don't get any political benefits from supporting them because we haven't dared to make the case. On crime over the last week, we have seen some real advances in policies this area, and also a lot of the confidence that must go with it. Hopefully this self-belief will spread to other areas, because that really is the way an opposition can use the circumstances of the day to win back power: find areas where the government is failing, set out the means by which the country will be improved, and hammer home the case for them month after month.

Beyond this, it's a question of how well or badly the government performs and the economy does, factors out of the opposition's hands. No small part of the Conservatives' dilemma has been that Labour has done few big things thus far to rouse Middle England out of her political slumber, and give her the reason to look carefully at the alternatives. For this reason, the party must also have some perspective on how much difference its own changes and policies are likely to have. In a way it's comforting to believe that the reason Labour has four hundred seats in the House of Commons is all down to Tory failure, because then if we can sort ourselves out again, it'll be automatic that this majority will vanish. In fact, most of the factors determining how well Labour did last time, and how well she will do next time, are outside our control, and are almost unaffected by whatever opposition we might put together.

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