Over two weeks have passed since the EU referendum and David Cameron’s sad decision to resign. Now that we are in the process of selecting a new leader, it is a good time to look back on the progress made during the last six years. We should reflect on why the reforms that have been made were necessary, understand their importance and then commit to both securing and continuing this work.
In politics, it is sometimes easy to only think about the present, but we should remind ourselves of the state this country was in when the Prime Minister came to power back in 2010. In those days, the United Kingdom had a record budget deficit which provided a real threat to our nation’s ability to pay the bills. We did not just suffer from high unemployment, but from a staggering number of households where no one had ever worked. We had an education system which had a reputation for containing little rigour, and too many of our children were leaving school unprepared for the world of work. And, we had a welfare system in which it appeared some were able to get something for nothing, and trapped so many into an unending cycle of unemployment and inescapable poverty.
I have been proud to spend the last six years supporting the Government as it set about tackling these issues. Cameron has led well – but he has also built a team that had had the capability to deliver the great reforms needed, gave them the freedom and power to go and do it, and then left Ministers in place long enough to make an impact.
Cameron and George Osborne’s commitment to cutting the deficit was attacked by some, who did not prioritise paying our way in the world. But you only need to look at the Prime Minister’s first speech on the issue after winning the election in 2010 to see why it was so important. As he said: “if we don’t deal with this, there will be no growth, there will be no recovery. It will be undercut by rising interest rates, rising inflation, falling confidence and the prospect of higher taxes”. The Government he led was able to consistently chip away at this mammoth total and the result over the last 6 years was exactly as he promised – we have had record low interest rates, extremely low inflation, consistent growth and tax cuts for the lowest earners.
Michael Gove took on the educational establishment and revolutionised a system badly in need of reform. Grade inflation at GCSE and A Level had undermined public trust in and the esteem of these important qualifications. In 2010 children were being let down, leaving school without being able to read or write, and without qualifications that were valued by employers. The efforts Michael Gove undertook reforms to set schools free from central control and to reintroduce greater academic rigour; the result was 1.4 million more children being taught in good or outstanding schools. This went hand in hand with the improvement in apprenticeships, to give young people a proper choice about what option would be best for their career, giving people the chance to earn while learning. 2.3 million were produced in the last Parliament, and three million will be in this Parliament – three million exciting opportunities to change lives and change our economy.
Iain Duncan Smith, when appointed as Work and Pensions Secretary quickly identified the problem of workless households, and the need to make work pay. Again, many of the reforms made were vigorously opposed, but have been shown to be largely successful. The number of workless households has fallen to an all-time low, the employment rate has hit record highs, and 2.4 million jobs have been created even while public sector jobs have been cut back. The key understanding has been that employment statistics are not just economic indicators, but social ones. Every single person out of work is a tragedy, not just a symbol of lost economic production. The link between unemployment and increased poor health, drug use, crime and any number of life plaguing ills is stark and unignorable by any caring, compassionate government. This becomes even more urgent considering the long lasting impact these issues can have upon children, and the ways in which poverty can become entrenched through generations.
It is all too easy to assume that these transformational successes had somehow occurred naturally or to underestimate their fundamental importance. It would be profoundly wrong to do so. To have a strong, successful and fair society you require an education system that will provide you with the skills you need to succeed in life, a welfare system that supports you when necessary but does not trap you within it, and an economy that provides you with the opportunities to take part and provide for your family. Cameron has done this, and he has delivered a country in a much better position than when he started. Crucially, he has enhanced the role of our state without falling into the trap of just extending it. We have to recognise his achievements and fight to protect them then, under our new Prime Minister, go again, and do yet more.