THE symbolism was striking when David Cameron returned to Stockton South, one of the pivotal swing seats in this region which determined the outcome of the general election, to proclaim that the Conservatives are the “real party of working people”.
This, after all, was the political power base for Mr Cameron’s political hero Harold Macmillan, and the One Nation Conservatism that the current Prime Minister hopes to replicate as the Tories seek to reach out to those areas in Britain’s once great industrial and manufacturing heartlands which were allowed to wither in the 1970s before the rate of decline accelerated during Margaret Thatcher’s free market reforms.
Like Mr Macmillan, whose philosophy was shaped by the mass unemployment he witnessed during the Great Depression, Mr Cameron’s leadership has been shaped by the 2007 financial crash and his determination to create sufficient private jobs to eradicate youth unemployment and the endemic culture of welfare dependency across Northern cities.
As the political historian Vernon Bogdanor wrote, Macmillan laid the foundations for a form of society neither socialist nor classically capitalist, but combining freedom of enterprise with public control so as to secure the benefits of both. This is very much Mr Cameron’s mantra as he uses the apparatus of government to put in place the transport and infrastructure improvements set out in the “Northern Powerhouse”.
Never before has an incoming Tory administration been so committed to the hopes and expectations of counties like Yorkshire that were left behind during the boom years.
The one difference, of course, is Mr Macmillan was respected across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The same cannot be said of Mr Cameron whose second term will be dominated by the revival of Scottish nationalism.
Rather than allowing Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond to dictate the debate, the Prime Minister should now seize the initiative and set out his vision for a federal Britain that protects the UK while giving individuals, and nations, the autonomy that will enable them to flourish.
Yet, seven days after Mr Cameron unexpectedly walked up Downing Street to form a “majority Conservative government” that many thought was beyond him, what are the five other political lessons of the past week?
1. Education, education, education. Three words associated with Mr Blair, they now hold the key to the Cameron government creating a lasting legacy. It speaks volumes about the money – and talent – that has been squandered when Britain trails 19 nations, including Slovenia, Poland, Estonia and Vietnam, when it comes to key skills. The Government must find a new way of re-energising the teaching profession.
2. Aspiration agenda. With the proportion of comprehensive-educated MPs rising to nearly 50 per cent, this Parliament has an opportunity to reach out to the country and encourage people of all backgrounds to become involved in politics. What is striking, however, is the sheer number of Tories from business backgrounds – real world experience will be critical to improving legislation.
3. Labour turmoil. Unless the Opposition listens to the likes of Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis, and apologises for past spending excesses, it will not win the argument on economic credibility. Leadership contender Yvette Cooper, the Pontefract and Castleford MP, is among those still in denial on this point. The party also needs to decide whether to provide constructive opposition. If its MPs simply troop through the “No” lobbies with the SNP during every vote, it will re-enforce the message that Labour is in the pocket of Ms Sturgeon.
4. The House of Lords. The greatest opposition to Mr Cameron will come from the Lords where the 224 Tory peers will be competing against 315 Labour grandees and, in all probability, 101 Lib Dems. This threatens a legislative logjam, even more so if the Government feels honour-bound to enoble Vince Cable and other vanquished Lib Dems. Now is the time for the Conservatives to introduce a fully-elected second chamber as part of a wider devolution package for the Northern cities and rest of the UK.
5. Ukip civil war. With Nigel Farage’s leadership volte-face, pressure on the party’s only MP Douglas Carswell to spend £650,000 of taxpayers’ money on policy aides, and economics spokesman Patrick Flynn describing his leader as “snarling, thin-skinned, aggressive”, it further suggests that Ukip is a one-man bandwagon. This can only help to unite the centre-right vote if the Government delivers its EU referendum, the raison d’être of arch-Eurosceptics.
What next? With the Opposition in disarray, David Cameron is right to roll up his shirt-sleeves and start enacting changes that maximise the country’s economic potential for all. In doing so, he must ensure that his party’s new-found confidence is not replaced by arrogance – the One Nation Conservatism espoused by Harold Macmillan always had compassion at its core and this remains the most important lesson of all at the end of a historic week that could leave the Tories in the driving seat for the foreseeable future.