James Frayne: Tory think tanks are flourishing – and the party will reap rewards

Written by James Frayne on 27 April 2018 in Opinion

Four think tanks stand out as ones to watch, including Onward which as been set up by Neil O'Brien.

I recently asked where the visionary thinking is from politicians on how to maximise the opportunities arising from leaving the EU (or mitigating the risks, if that's your viewpoint)? Politicians are so focused on the principles of leaving the EU and the mechanics of the process, few are thinking about making the most of life outside. Pretty soon they'll be standing for election with new freedoms to talk about, so why aren’t they thinking about what they will say?

This is depressing. But on the Conservative side at least, there are reasons to be optimistic. For, away from the daily focus of the Westminster media, Conservative and independent free-market leaning think tanks are flourishing in a way they haven’t for years. Over the course of the last year, there has been a quiet injection of talent and cash into both new and established think tanks with a clear goal in mind: to come up with radical solutions to major problems that politicians can actually implement. This will pay dividends for the party in the coming months and years. 

Four think tanks stand out. Firstly, the Centre for Policy Studies has taken on new senior staff, most notably in the form of journalist and author Rob Colvile, and No 10 policy adviser Alex Morton - respectively the think tank’s new director and head of policy. The CPS recently announced the launch of four new policy strands: tax and cost of living; business and enterprise; housing and planning; and welfare. (Full disclosure: my agency Public First is helping the CPS with its work on welfare). 

Secondly, the Institute of Economic Affairs continues to gather strength under director Mark Littlewood. They have just launched a new International Trade and Competition Unit, which will be invaluable in helping Governments wrestle with a policy area almost entirely neglected in Britain since the 1970s. Furthermore, through Littlewood and Kate Andrews, the IEA continues to provide hard-headed, often refreshingly brutal opposition to politicians and commentators who demand “something must be done”.  

Thirdly, there is launch of an entirely new think tank – Onward – which has been created by MP Neil O’Brien (former director of Policy Exchange) and which will be run by former No 10 deputy director of policy, Will Tanner. Onward looks set to try to come up with policies attractive to both London liberal voters and more traditional voters in provincial England. While not theoretically an easy needle to thread, Neil O’Brien’s Policy Exchange, with its simultaneous focus on improving life in the North and appealing to ethnic minority voters, did just that.

Fourthly, Open Europe, under its new director Henry Newman, a special adviser in a number of departments in the last government, takes a forensic approach to the major challenges facing Britain during the Brexit negotiation process. The think tank asks the most fundamental questions about Britain's negotiating position and its ultimate objectives. It will continue to play a very important role over at least 2018 and 2019.

Meanwhile Policy Exchange continues to produce interesting papers, particularly on the security side. 

The encouraging thing for the Conservative party is not only that these think tanks have additional capacity and quality, but that they are all focused on those issues that are going to be at the heart of political debate in the next few years. There is little "thinking for its own sake". This means that think tanks are going to be churning out a steady stream of policy ideas that will have direct relevance to the Conservatives - and indeed anyone else that is prepared to listen. 

The work of think tanks is underrated, even by many in Westminster. New MPs often come to Westminster and fail to engage with those institutions broadly affiliated with their movement. They assume that new ideas must come either from government departments, from parliament, or from their party's headquarters. In reality, this is rare; the best ideas tend to come out of the think tanks. Having worked in a number of think tanks down the years, I always found that backbenchers were the least interested in our work, while we were on first name terms with the most senior politicians - people who recognised the power of (new) ideas. 

Those interested in what the Conservative party's manifesto is going to look like next time around, and on the future direction of the next (Conservative) government, should keep a close eye on the output of these institutions in the next few months. This is where the party's ideas are going to spring from. 


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