Robert Halfon: “Potentially, the future of Conservatism is a good one. We’ve just got a long way to get there.”
From a Conservative rebrand to a skills ‘revolution’, Robert Halfon's thirst for radical reform remains unabated. But will the government – and his party – listen to his ideas? He speaks to Sebastian Whale
As Robert Halfon deploys words such as “incredible” and “exciting” to describe the Tory party conference, I can’t help but wonder if we attended the same event. But leaving aside the anxiety dream lived out by the Prime Minister in the main hall, the Tory backbencher refers to the mood on the marginals during the four-day gathering in Manchester. “The most exciting part of conference was the fringe. I’ve never seen fringe like it, and I’ve been to every single conference since 1989,” he says.
Free to roam as he pleases, Halfon was in high demand on the conference circuit. The former education minister attended discussions on topics ranging from housing policy, apprenticeships through to his pet project of radically overhauling the Conservatives’ platform. From his encounters, he believes the party’s activist base is craving change.
“The fringe was incredible and it showed that there is a yearning out there for radicalism. There is a yearning out there for ideas and plotting a way forward,” he says.
And he goes further, suggesting Labour, who enjoyed a conference in stark contrast to that of the Conservatives, are becoming guilty of the complacency that overcame his party at the general election. “In some ways, it shows that we are prepared to question ourselves and see where we’ve gone wrong, despite being in a position of strength. At the end of the day we got more votes than Labour, we’re the party of government, and yet everyone is soul-searching,” he says.
“Before the election we were the hare, and Labour was the tortoise. The result was that just like the hare did, we fell asleep and the tortoise took us over. Now it’s the reverse, Labour are acting as if they’ve got everything right, the world is theirs, they’re almost in government, they don’t need to worry.”
Halfon has been at the centre of Tory calls this summer for a complete rejuvenation of the party’s offer. His efforts, alongside those of his colleagues, seem to have also been noticed in Number 10. Recent announcements on expanding social housing (5,000 extra council homes a year over five years), increasing the earnings threshold at which graduates pay back tuition fees to £25,000 and May’s recognition of structural flaws in the party machine – areas Halfon and others have been championing – all speak to this.
But the moves are hardly what you would call radical. Always keen to find the positive in a situation, Halfon believes it’s a good start. “Conference is about direction of travel, it’s not there to set the hardcore detail.”
For all the introspection Halfon attests to at conference, the event will be remembered for that speech by Theresa May and the subsequent moves against her. Halfon, who is at pains to stake his allegiance to the PM, says the plot – orchestrated by former Cabinet minister Grant Shapps – was most unwelcome.
“I just think it’s a distraction because it makes it look like we’re only interested in our own self-advancement. I think the electorate are disgusted by it, to be honest. My members locally are certainly not happy,” he says.
“My duty as a Conservative is to support the Prime Minister. I think she’s doing a good job in tough circumstances; Brexit, facing extreme Islamist terrorist attacks, with the difficult economic situation… I think it’s a knucklehead approach to politics, to plot and scheme and so on.”
Though the coup will go down in history as surely one of the least effectual of its kind, questions about May’s position as leader shall continue to dog her days in No10. With Halfon seeking a complete remodelling of the Conservatives’ platform, does he really believe she can lead the party into the next election?
“I think it’s entirely a matter for her to decide. I certainly wouldn’t oppose it. She said she got us into this mess, she says she’s going to get us out of it. I think the party trusts her to do it,” he says.
Halfon was first elected to parliament in 2010, before enjoying a steep rise under David Cameron. He became George Osborne’s PPS in 2014, deputy chair of the Tories and minister without portfolio in 2015, before serving as minister for apprenticeships and skills until being sacked in July of this year.
Known as a champion of white van man conservatism, it’s clear within minutes of arriving in his parliamentary office that the 48-year-old bleeds blue. Pictures of his beloved Chelsea sit proudly on the walls, alongside framed newspaper clippings charting Halfon’s political journey. Piles of paper are strewn on a coffee table as he prepares for yet another speech on the future of the Conservative party. The sound of his computer connecting to a landline internet connection echoes around the room, perfectly encapsulating the rather archaic feel of the building in Speaker’s Court.
Halfon was elected chair of the Education Select Committee over the summer. So long as the country is spared another snap election, he quips, his team will undertake inquiries on alternative education, universities, exam integrity and the quality of apprenticeship training.
Halfon says that equality of opportunity is central to his ethos on education, and indeed his wider political ideology. He uses the analogy of a ladder both in how he views conservatism and the education system. To him, too many pupils are left behind due to social disadvantage. That means that those from wealthier backgrounds dominate the intakes of Russell Group Universities at the top of the educational hierarchy.
The rungs on Halfon’s ‘educational ladder of opportunity’ are: identifying social injustice; broadening access to quality education and training; ensuring suitable provision; unlocking jobs, security and prosperity, and lastly building a better society. It’s through this prism that he will assess government policy.
Apprenticeships remain top of his agenda (he refers to skills no fewer than 23 times in our 30-minute talk). He says not enough prestige is given to skills, nor consideration for the aptitudes required in the future given the use of robotics. To overcome this, Halfon says a “dramatic revolution” is required in how schools view skills.
Taking a “carrot and stick approach”, Halfon wants the government to financially incentivise schools to encourage greater uptake of apprenticeships, such as through grants or adjustments to the pupil premium. The stick, he adds, would be through “toughening up” Ofsted in its assessments. He believes that degree level apprenticeships will also help change perceptions. But to give the parity of esteem Halfon would like to see with university study, more needs to be done to win over parents.
“There’s a massive hurdle. We’ve not had a tipping point yet, but we’re getting there,” he says. “You change that through everybody talking about it, whether it’s opinion formers, decision makers, celebrities, apprentice ambassadors… Also, as I say, making sure careers advice should be predominantly based towards skills. Schools must do a lot more to talk about skills and apprenticeships. I think then you would get the change.”
Halfon, who studied at Exeter, was the second person in his family to go to university. While he believes that degrees retain the same value, he would like to see financial incentives for students to take on subjects in “the areas that we have deficits” that would bring most benefit to the student and UK society. “If we had a deficit of lawyers, the financial incentives would go there,” he explains, before noting that Britain currently has “huge problems” in terms of STEM subjects.
It’s for this reason why Halfon believes there should be a “nationwide conversation” about what skills are needed for the future, amid the rise of automation. “The problem is we’re behind so many developing countries in terms of our skills deficit, that we’re not even keeping up with what is current, let alone with what the future will be. So, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he says.
There’s a clear pattern to Halfon’s thinking on education, which culminates in plugging the skills gaps to ensure the country is prepared for looming changes in the composition of the UK workforce. At the heart of it are concerns around fairness and access, and it’s here where our conversation turns to private schools.
Halfon, who himself attended a private school, has called for the charitable status assigned to the institutions to be looked at. He questions the fairness of some schools not having to pay corporation tax. As part of this, he wants to see “real evidence” that private schools provide bursaries to people from low income backgrounds. But would he consider Labour’s proposal to impose VAT on private schools?
“I think one should consider it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with it. I’m not convinced completely, because I would want them to look at the charitable status of schools, it might be a better way of doing it by that to create a level playing field,” he says.
It certainly would be a radical move for the Conservatives to take. I put it to Halfon that tinkering at the edges on education (a charge he describes as unfair), such as with increasing the threshold at which graduates pay back their student loan, fails to land when juxtaposed with Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to abolish fees all together. But he sees another route through which his party can demonstrate a bold proposal: by offering every young person from the age of 16 the chance to do an apprenticeship.
“I don’t think we can outbid Labour, they are always going to spend more than the Conservatives. If we said we were going to spend £100bn on the health service, they would say we’re going to spend £120bn. You can’t win that war,” he says.
“What you can do is show the public that what you’re doing is fair in the context of an economic deficit and you’ve got a different offering, which is very exciting to the audience you’re trying to make the offer too.”
In recent months, Halfon has had some stark warnings for the future of his party. Following our chat, he delivers a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies laying out in vivid detail the Tories’ weaknesses on messaging, policy and perception among the public. But that’s not to say he is despondent. He lavishes praise on the new Tory MPs coming through and would like to see them have an influence on policy and on party reform. Though the picture he paints is dark, Halfon believes there is now a party wide recognition of what’s at stake.
“I think we are still at a very dangerous road. There’s no doubt about that. I’m not going to deny that for a moment,” he says.
“Where I’m encouraged is that, wherever I see Conservatives they are genuinely soul searching and looking for ideas, from the Prime Minister downwards to people like me.”
He concludes: “I think that, potentially, the future of Conservatism is a good one. We’ve just got a long way to get there.”