David Frost: My three-point plan to save Boris, the Conservative Party and the country

As he joins The Telegraph as a columnist, the ex-Brexit minister outlines what’s wrong with the Tories… and how the PM can win again

By David Frost, Telegraph, 19 February 2022

Conservative government plans

'We can set out what we are trying to do and why, and how it will make our country better, stronger and more prosperous'

All successful governments are alike, but all unsuccessful ones fail in their own particular way. Successful governments explain their objectives, adopt policies that can achieve them, bring on board skilled people to deliver them – and connect with the instincts and wishes of their voters. Unsuccessful governments fail to do some or all of these things. As a result, they lose the confidence of the electorate long before they actually lose office.

Boris Johnson’s administration risks going down this road.

Admittedly, it has two huge achievements to its credit: getting us out of the EU, and delivering an exit from the pandemic without the coercive measures we have seen elsewhere. Merry England is one of the freest countries in the world.

But voters don’t give credit for past glories. They want to know “what now?” And here the prospectus looks thinner. The Government doesn’t seem to be able to decide whether it is a traditional, low-tax Tory administration, or whether its ambition is to turn Britain into a European-style social democracy. Consequently, it isn’t pleasing anyone – and the sense of drift is palpable.

Whatever happens with partygate, things need to get back on track. If we don’t stop vacillating between inconsistent objectives, and failing to make the case for any of them, we won’t take people with us – and we will deserve to lose.

This is all the more frustrating because our voters wanted us to set a clear course, to develop a new popular and modern Conservatism for a newly free Britain. They wanted Brexit and they wanted change. Boris Johnson still has great instincts for sensing what people want. The cause is not lost. But barely more than two years remain until a general election – so we must get on with it.

There are two false trails we could go down.

The first I call the “Red Wall fallacy”. It is the idea that the Tories’ 2019 voters, especially the new ones, aren’t interested in Conservatism. Instead, it is said, they want to rebuild the country with a post-Brexit culture war on identity politics coupled with high spending and lots of government programmes. I even hear Conservative politicians arguing that free markets are inherently corrosive of solidarity and community, and that “levelling up” requires an expanded role for the state. In short, it is said, if you believe in the nation state of Britain, you must also believe in high public spending and socialist economics.

We can’t go down this road, for one simple reason: we know free markets are the only way of building prosperity. In my experience, our voters in the Red Wall are perfectly aware of this – indeed, they are keener than most on attracting new investment and supporting business.

To adopt the Red Wall fallacy is to choose defeat and decline. It is the way of the traditional post-war Labour Party – of steadily declining British industrial power, rooted in a world without global competition, where the Empire gave us illusory strength by hiding domestic economic weakness.

The second false trail I call the “Davos fallacy”. This rests on the opposite assumption: that if you believe in free markets, you must also be a globalist with no regard for place and history, and that you don’t care what is happening in your country as long as you are doing alright yourself.

The Davos fallacy can’t be accepted, either. People do care about their country and their communities. They don’t think that the outcomes of free markets are the only things that matter. They know that, in a dangerous world, we can’t be indifferent to where economic activity is and who owns it.

Adopting the Davos fallacy is to disempower and ultimately dismantle ourselves as a country. It is the way of the globalisers – those who were quite happy to offshore business to China, who favour unlimited migration, who don’t think that national identity and history much matter, and who think economic and political judgments are better made by international institutions than by national democracies. In a classic case of Orwell’s “transferred nationalism”, some make up for the psychological void left by their lack of belief in national identity by a fixation with identity politics – an obsession which, if taken to extremes, risks destroying the cohesion and sense of fairness that democracies need to survive.

Both false trails contain elements of truth. That is why they are dangerously attractive. But neither on its own can be a modern Conservative approach.

The centre of gravity of Conservatism is to be found in blending the best of both. That has been the historic genius of the Conservative Party: to bring together the maximum amount of political and economic freedom with a belief in our country, what it stands for, its cohesion, and our collective solidarity. Free markets, low taxes, freedom of speech and ideas, within a strong national democracy with which we all identify – that is the right way forward for our party and our country.

Some say these ideas are contradictory. They aren’t. They go together. If free markets, with all their churn and turbulence and messiness, are to be supported by everyone, they have to work within a framework – a common national endeavour, with an understanding that “we are all in this together”, where the price of being supported when things go wrong is that you have to work hard when things go right.

Historically, this concept would have seemed unexceptionable, obvious even. But it has been damaged by our 50 years of EU membership. The EU’s deeply embedded belief in regulation, corporatism and, too often, protectionism meant that we were stuck in a fundamentally social democratic organisation that frustrated our efforts to preserve free markets and which actually weakened our decision-makers’ belief in them.

Moreover, the EU systematically undermined Britain as a country. We lost far too many powers to the EU. British elections decided fewer and fewer things in practice. As a result, some began to focus their loyalty on the EU, rather than their own country – as we have seen from the furious reaction from extreme Remainers to the events of recent years. We have to live with that unhappy legacy. But we can now change it. After Brexit, we have re-established our democracy. Now we can begin to deliver.

The situation is urgent. Many things need doing. But it is crucial to have a plan and a direction of travel. So here is my three-point plan to help the Government begin that work – to rebuild our country, to boost economic growth and to create an effective state not a big one.

Step 1: Unite the kingdom

First, we must rebuild the UK nation state as a collective endeavour for everyone within it.

The democratic nation state is the best way human beings have found to create political community and loyalty, to facilitate solidarity, and to make people feel part of something bigger. We should be proud of what we have achieved in this country. We should be respectful of our history, though be ready to debate it. We should be supportive of the institutions that underpin our democracy.

A country with self-respect cannot have its laws set by others. We must therefore finish the business of re-establishing our sovereignty in Northern Ireland – step by step, if necessary, but with no doubt about the final goal.

We should put an end to “devolve and forget” in Scotland and Wales. Local decision-making is fine, but it should come within a sensible national framework. The pandemic made clear the nonsense of having four different travel and public health policies.

We need to control our borders effectively and reduce the inward migration that is still adding a city the size of Manchester to the country every decade. We must also be ready to insist that people who come here to live permanently should be committed to this country and determined to make it a success – to build a more cohesive Britain. This may require some difficult choices.

Bringing people together means helping them when they face disadvantage – as individuals. It does not mean conceding special privileges to people purely because they are members of a favoured group or have some supposedly “protected characteristic”. Nor does it mean genuflecting to the Marxism of groups like BLM, or the craziness of Stonewall. We believe in people as individuals, with rights, aspirations and duties. Any other path means fragmenting and ultimately undermining our collective life in this country. People are often scared to comment honestly on this. Far too many people feel their lives might be destroyed if some enforcer comes for them because they express themselves in a way that is not in line with the latest fads.

So we must return to our long-established tradition of protecting free speech. When I was young, I often heard people say, of some doubtful opinion: “Well, it’s a free country.” I don’t hear that so much now. Indeed, during the pandemic, social media companies have prevented far too much perfectly legitimate debate; unfortunately, our Government has not always pushed back on this; and the Scottish Government seems to positively revel in it. Let’s recast the Online Safety Bill; let’s put more protection for free speech into law, and let’s make this a free country again.

Step 2: Make free markets attractive again

Second, we need to turbo-charge our country’s productive capacity through a return to free markets and competition.

We need a whole-hearted focus on competitiveness, productivity and growth. One per cent growth is not good enough for Britain. Other priorities are important, but unless we are creating wealth we will not be able to do any of them.

Our aim must be to get everyone around the world looking at Britain and saying: “Yes, they are on the right path.” Then investment and growth will follow. So we have to make freedom and free markets attractive again. This is not a simple return to Thatcherism, as so many of our critics assert. Thatcherism in the Eighties had to deal with some very specific problems, notably the power of trade unions. Today’s problems are different, but free markets are still the best way of tackling them. We can make a modern case for economic and political freedom that reflects the conditions of today, and make it attractive to people across the spectrum.

Specifically, that means abandoning the planned tax rises – National Insurance and Corporation Tax. On present plans, taxes will be the highest they have been for 50 years. That is fundamentally un-Conservative.

Instead, we should make our domestic economy super-competitive. We need to get on with reforming our regulatory frameworks. We should instruct the Competition and Markets Authority to break up inefficient big businesses, and break down cartels like the house-builders. We should not automatically be the friend of big business, but of good customer service, of new business ideas, of innovation.

Our vision is not that everyone should be an employee of some mega corporation, but that everyone should have the chance to be the master of their own destiny. So we want to help people build businesses and make them successful – which means the intrusive new IR35 rules need to be scrapped, too.

Let us also open our economy to the world – getting the best products and high-quality food at the best prices – by reducing all our tariffs to zero as fast as we can. That would be a real Brexit dividend, help tackle the cost of living crisis and send a very powerful signal to the rest of the world.

Step 3: Stop useless state intervention

Third, we don’t need a big state – but we do need an effective one.

Modern governments try to do too much, and do much of it badly. Our government spends £4 of every £10 the country produces. We have reached a limit.

We have seen far too much government failure, from the shocking case of poor Arthur Labinjo-Hughes to extraordinary levels of waste and mismanagement at the centre. For too many people, the state does not help solve problems, but creates them. Yet while the Government constantly expands its remit to solve every social problem the Today programme deems to be the state’s responsibility, basic functions that people care about like policing the streets or running the court system are neglected.

Yet there is no sign of any reduction of ambition. The Government thinks it knows best how to achieve the immensely complex task of net zero by picking unproven and unready technologies that push up energy costs for everyone. It proposes to create an entirely new social care service bolted on to the NHS. And, at the micro level, time and effort are wasted on laws to recognise animal sentience or to ban the advertising of muesli.

The Government takes on these ambitious tasks with machinery that is fundamentally ramshackle, Victorian and Edwardian in its underlying concepts. The problems this generates have been made worse by an increasingly assertive Civil Service sense of right and wrong, which reflects the views of an establishment elite not necessarily those of the people who elected the Government. That is why, every time a new problem is faced, whether it is vaccines or Brexit negotiations, we have had to bypass the existing bureaucracy and create new teams, with outsiders, to do the job.

Labour will never understand this. Their solution to everything is more government. The Conservative Party can do something different. We can call a halt. That doesn’t mean a libertarian nightwatchman state. It means stopping taking on new tasks, with the constant growth in spending that entails, and instead do the current ones better. It means putting much more reliance on individuals, families and communities to deal with problems. And it means reforming the Civil Service in a serious way, so that this and future governments can put their trust in a state machine that will help them secure their objectives, rather than get in the way.

In setting out this three-point plan, I know I am advocating an ambitious programme. We can’t deliver it all in the remaining two years of this Parliament. But what we can do is begin the work and explain it.

We can set out what we are trying to do and why, and how it will make our country better, stronger and more prosperous – and, eventually, invite the voters to come with us. It would be a truly Conservative prospectus and a truly Conservative approach: to trust the people, to bring everyone together to create a new, free Britain.

Lord Frost’s new weekly Telegraph column begins next month