We Tories must ditch elitism and embrace true equality

The Conservative party wins elections when it puts opportunity and aspiration at the heart of its mission. It was as true for Margaret Thatcher in 1979, as it was for Boris Johnson in 2019. Britain has been divided in so many ways but achieving equality of opportunity is a rare unifying message that can gain support from voters across the country.

In many respects, the last election was a fake fight on a single issue: Brexit. The Conservative message was to move beyond our reformed EU relationship to “levelling up”. By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party ditched improving social mobility as an objective. Labour’s new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is unlikely to fall into the same ideological abyss as his predecessor. The next election will be very different to the last one. This time, all will put levelling up centre stage.

The race is on to win that crucial battle of being the party that voters believe doesn’t just talk the talk but understands what a levelled-up Britain would mean in practice.

The Conservative party should recognise that winning this race requires credible voices and an equally credible plan. Yet the suspicions of many voters are that the Conservative party remains dominated by the voices of privilege and chumocracy, more than by those representing the party of effort and reward; that it protects vested interests which bankroll the party ahead of the interests of the public; that too often government roles seem handed out based on who knows whom, rather than who knows what.

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It’s difficult not to look like the party of privilege when 65 per cent of the cabinet is privately educated, serving under an old-Etonian prime minister and a Winchester College-educated chancellor.

The danger is that when the party talks about opportunity, it comes across as paternalistic, helping people do a little bit better and earn a little bit more. This is not the more ambitious levelling-up agenda that voters want, fundamentally changing how this country runs to deliver equality of opportunity through education, and removing the barriers and biases that hold people back. Opportunity in Britain can feel like a closed shop to the majority born without the privilege that much of the cabinet has. The leadership of the Conservative party must show they understand that basic point through their actions and policy.

But when the PM’s chief adviser breaches the lockdown rules, it paints a picture of a country run by those who feel they have the right to set rules but need not follow them, that they run the system but are not part of it. It comes over as elitist, the antithesis of a party of effort and reward.

The Conservative party must decide if it is the party of privilege and chumocracy or the party of effort and reward. It cannot be both.

Prime ministers don’t get to choose the crises that define them. But they do get to choose if those crises push them off their wider agenda.

For voters, levelling up is much more than government just making life less bad after Covid-19. That is simply not good enough. Levelling up is about making lives demonstrably better and, crucially, fair in terms of who has access to what opportunities in our country. It is about eradicating the chumocracy, not entrenching it.

Even our great wartime leader Winston Churchill discovered that you can win the war but, without a credible vision and plan for the future, you can lose the battle for winning the next election.

Justine Greening is a former secretary of state for education



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