John Redwood: This Government must decide what it wants, and then stand firm when the pressure starts

AS an MP, I have always thought I should be loyal to my constituents, to my country and to my party – in that order.

I have always taken seriously what I promised electors at the last election and done my best to further those aims.

When the Conservative Party has won an election and formed a majority government, I have felt I should usually be loyal to the manifesto of the party.

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When we lose an election, the party itself usually changes or cancels some of its promises from the previous election, as it seeks a more attractive package for the next one.

In opposition, the last manifesto is a starting point for improving the party’s policies, not a binding contract.

A coalition government is clearly different. Its programme contains items which did not form part of the Conservative manifesto, and leaves out important items that were in that blueprint.

The Lib Dems have just demonstrated that they do not think they owe loyalty to the Coalition Agreement. They have voted down the Government’s mutually agreed health policy, and many of them have expressed their dislike of Dr Cable’s tuition fee policy, despite it being drawn up and proposed by a Lib Dem senior minister.

A coalition government has to work hard to encourage as wide a base of support as possible, and to reassure and keep on board the MPs and members of the two parties that make it up.

I did not myself dream up the forest proposals, and would not have invented the particular version the Government produced. I decided I should not oppose their approach, and wrote explaining it to my constituents who were worried based on some of the rumours and alarmist fears spread around by its opponents.

I sought an assurance from Ministers that they were going to see it through and that being loyal to the policy would be wise as well as helpful. A few days after receiving that assurance, they cancelled the policy.

I did not help draw up or lobby for the health changes. They were in the Conservative manifesto in some detail, though many people do not seem to have read them until recently.

Again, I felt I should offer some support and explain them to constituents, given their origins. My comments on how they could be amended, improved or put across to those charged with implementing them are usually made in private.

Nor did I draw up or lobby for the tuition fee package. The Conservative manifesto did not contain an answer on tuition fees, though I did warn in the election that I thought any government coming to power was likely to raise the fees that Labour had first imposed.

When I saw them, I was concerned about their financial impact on both students and taxpayers. Over the next few years, taxpayers will have to borrow more money in order to make the advances to students to pay the universities, at a time when public finances are very stretched.

Even though the proposals came from a Lib Dem Minister and were not from the Conservative manifesto, I have done my best to support and explain them to constituents.

I have urged the creation of more access funds by a variety of interested parties so more gifted students from low income homes can have the benefit of a grant aided or scholarship supported education.

The issue that I have found most difficult with this Government is the issue of the EU. The Conservative manifesto said: “We will ensure by law no future government can hand over areas of power to the EU or join the euro without a referendum. We will work to bring back key powers over legal rights, criminal justice and social and employment legislation to the UK.”

It concluded by saying: “The steady and unaccountable intrusion of the European Union into almost every aspect of our lives has gone too far... We seek a mandate to negotiate the return of these powers (as above) from the EU to the UK.”

I have sought to be true to the promises I made about the EU to my electors, and to the words of the Conservative manifesto where it covered the issue.

The range and nature of constitutional change that the coalition has drawn up was not part of my promise in May 2010. I will be opposing AV, and do not believe the five-year Parliament’s legislation can be binding if a future government does not want it. I do not support further transfers of power to the EU, and do want powers back.

A government finds it easier to command loyalty if it comes up with sensible proposals to start with, and sticks with them when they are attacked and criticised. It is more difficult for supporters if a government develops a reputation for backing down.

Supporters are then reluctant to give public support in the early stages of a new policy, for fear it will be ditched if pressure develops.

If Lib Dem criticisms of the health policy result in major changes, Conservative members will want changes to policies they don’t like. For example, many of them would like the overseas aid budget increases scaled back, would like the Ark Royal and Harriers reinstated, and Buckinghamshire protected from expensive new high-speed train lines.

When it comes to claiming credit for popular policies, Conservatives would say that they too wanted civil liberties restored, income tax cut and the earnings link restored for pensioners.

In government, there has to be both a sharing of the burden of less popular measures, and a sharing of the credit for the popular ones. If the Budget produces a reduction in fuel tax, that is something MPs of both coalition parties have been seeking – and will welcome.

John redwood is a Conservative MP and former Cabinet Minister.