Two days after the announcement of the negative growth last quarter and with anti-cuts protests still at the front of the nation’s minds, I met with Michael Fallon. Michael is currently the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, senior advisor to David Cameron and a notable parliamentarian. In the past he has also served as Minister for Education under Margret Thatcher and John Major, so there seemed few people within the Conservative Party better able to give the Cherwell an insight into how the Conservatives view their future and the future of the coalition government.
Throughout January both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems were suffering in the opinion polls, with Labour varying from a five to a ten point lead over the Conservatives, and striding thirty points ahead of the Liberal Democrats. These figures did not seem to worry Michael, and when I questioned whether the coalition could do more to resonate with the public he did not try to query their low support. Instead he admitted “We didn’t expect to be popular” and cited public sector pay freezes, the cuts which mean that “jobs will disappear”, as well as the VAT increases which will make “some households feel the pinch”. I was surprised. I knew that the coalition was not claiming to provide an easy ride through the recession but for a politician to offer so freely the reasons for their lack of public popularity seemed unusually honest. Michael continued that in order to get the economy growing the first and most important task was to “sort the deficit out.” Although protests and polls alike show that the Conservatives were right to calm their expectations of public admiration, their main aim of deficit reduction is being dealt with head on.
Comedians and students alike speculate that Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, currently lies amongst the list of most hated people in Britain. Evidence of which is seen in the polls, with the Liberal Democrats down to single figures. Now seemed like an appropriate time to ask Michael how the Conservative Party was faring in the coalition. Suddenly the conversation took a turn. No longer were we discussing the hardships of the nation, instead the reformer within Mr Fallon took the mike. “[It] seems a very strange consequence”, he said, but the coalition means that the Conservative party “are now able to do some things which we may have had great difficulty in doing had we won the election outright”. Listing off aspirations, Michael’s excitement showed. Welfare reform, education reform and “shaking up the NHS” were all projects, he said, which may not have been implemented with a weak Parliamentary majority.
Michael had written, in October of 2010, that the Conservatives would stand by their values throughout their time in coalition government, and after. I asked Mr Fallon to what extent this had remained true four months on. He admitted that there had been some compromises. The renewal of trident has been delayed, and capital gains tax has been raised above the manifesto level. However, the compromises and policy changes coming from the Liberal Democrats have not represented a reduction in Conservative conviction. The use of pupil premiums and the increase in tax allowances for the poorest, he claimed, “are very Conservative things”.
However, the need to preserve values whilst joining together two parties requires a careful balance. We “have to be careful here not to end up
with some Conservative achievements and some Liberal Democrat achievements.” Although Michael rejected swiftly John Major’s suggestion that the coalition should join together to run for the next election, stating that it would be impossible to “persuade either party to merge its identity with the other”, he emphasised that “both parties have to take responsibility for all the policies and all the decisions”.
Close ideology on policy areas of education and taxation help the coalition to stay consistent. The Liberal Democrats, although they have “modified their positions once they’ve come to the reality of government” have come together and “been pretty constructive overall”. Even the most left wing of the Lib Dems “want to see the coalition succeed”. An example of the coalition working together, Michael claimed, was the reform to the curriculum in the form of the English Baccalaureate.
Justifying this change, Michael said that “Softer GCSEs… have been a bit of a deception. They have deluded a lot of previous school leavers into believing that they were properly equipped for university or indeed for working life”. The coalition hopes that creating a more rigorous GCSE system will help to create “higher aspirations and higher standards” ensuring that no one is “deterred from pursuing a more academic route to university”.
Finally our conversation turned to the economy. With negative growth in the last quarter, I asked Michael if he was optimistic about the recovery. “Over the longer term, yes”, he responded “we’ve taken the measures needed both to stimulate growth and to control the deficit”. He claimed that following every recession there are “choppy periods where growth falters, [which were] combined… with one month of particularly bad weather.” Although a double-dip recession is “theoretically possible” he warned that we should not “get bewitched by one month or one quarter’s figures. What we need to do is get the long term changes in the economy right”.
Michael continued to establish the four reasons that, he believes, the growth under New Labour was “pretty unsustainable”: “it centred around a housing boom, a banking boom and public spending out of control and immigration out of control”. He considers that the coalition’s policies, which have already pushed through cuts in corporation tax and reduction in regulation on business, are “doing the things that will help create growth”, a more stable growth than was seen under New Labour. These policies should have the result of creating “the foundations for a better balanced economy in which the financial sector, especially the banking sector, will be slightly smaller than it was at the height of the boom, and that’s a good thing.”
Thus, with headlines riddled with speculation over the possibility of a double-dip recession and discontent being felt both in the polls and in the streets, Michael Fallon is adamant that there is still a bright future for the Conservative Party, the coalition and the nation it will leave. He hopes, and believes, that the coalition’s aims will be achieved; that the economy will recover, education will be improved and the NHS will become more productive. The coalition has faced opposition throughout its existence however, regardless of disagreement over the ways and the means, the ideology and the values; these are aims, at least, which we can all agree on.