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How May can be as bold as Thatcher or Attlee

    This article was originally published by the Times Red Box.

    A strong economy. A Labour Party facing, in the words of Polly Toynbee, “its darkest night”. 4 million former UKIP voters who can now only – logically – support the Conservatives. A Liberal Party which can fit all its MPs into the back of a taxi. The Leave vote largely behind the Conservatives. The Remain vote split between Labour and the Liberals – and, in Scotland and Wales, the Nationalists.

    Yes, the imminent General Election will largely focus on Brexit and its implications. But at the same time, an extraordinary domestic opportunity faces the Conservatives. Will they seize it, by setting out a dynamic programme of domestic reform which can be both popular and radical, and change the (often wrong) perception of the Conservatives as the “nasty party”? Or will the temptation to play safe, in the hope that the weakness of the other political parties will deliver an election victory?

    The Prime Minister has shown that she does indeed have a surprisingly bold streak. Consider her embrace of Brexit, her advocacy of grammar schools, her appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary and now her decision to call an early election.

    And the Conservatives have a strong practical reason to set out clearly the aims and ambitions of a new administration. With no Conservative majority in the House of Lords, the upper chamber will be perfectly within its rights to delay or obstruct any policy which is not spelled out in a manifesto.

    So what might such a radical agenda look like? Below are five ideas which would improve the lives and incomes of ordinary working families, which would appeal far beyond the traditional Conservative strongholds, and which would pave the way to making the UK the most competitive developed economy in the world.

    First, the Conservatives can pledge to address the extraordinary complexity and incoherence of the tax system. For example, the fiscal incentives for individuals encourage many people to opt for self-employment over traditional employment. This can be addresses by combining NI and Income Tax rates – at a lower level. And it could be funded by replacing all pensions Income Tax relief (which overwhelmingly benefits the higher rate taxpayers) with a simple 25% flat rate bonus, paid irrespective of tax-paying status. Thus would be delivered lower taxes, particularly for the less well-off, a broader tax base, and a tax system which better reflects modern work patterns.

    Second, to sort out the housing crisis by rapidly increasing the number of house building starts by simplifying the planning system, developing further the initial steps set out in the recent Housing White Paper.

    Third, to overcome the fact that, in the words of former Labour Minister Andrew Adonis, “comprehensive schools have largely replaced selection by ability with selection by class and house price” by pursuing greater diversity and choice for all in the UK’s education system. This should include the introduction of more new free schools, University Technical Colleges and grammar schools

    Fourth, to let households and businesses enjoy lower competitive electricity prices through the abolition of the Carbon Price Floor and the EU Renewables Directive.

    Fifth, to disarm Labour’s strongest electoral card, and to address the long-term problems facing the NHS, by promising to set up a Royal Commission to look at the long-term future on the NHS. Its remit should be to relieve the unfairness of outcomes of our country’s health – recent ONS data showed that if you are born in the most deprived areas in the UK, you are expected to enjoy 19 fewer healthy life years at birth than if you are born in the wealthiest areas.

    The chance to change the political landscape comes round but rarely. Attlee did it in the late 1940s. Mrs Thatcher did if from 1979 onwards. We are about to find out whether Mrs May is as bold as they were.

    Tim Knox

    Before his appointment as Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, Tim Knox was the Editor at the CPS - a position in which he was responsible for publishing papers by every Conservative leader since Mrs Thatcher as well as by hundreds of leading academics and opinion formers.

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