The Tory leadership contest hasn’t formally begun but the shadow-boxing has been uninspiring. Brexit positioning dominates, leavened with a bit of backstory and personal colour: Dominic Raab’s kitchen, Michael Gove’s parental home in Aberdeen, Liz Truss’s Instagram account, Jeremy Hunt’s wife. And Boris Johnson keeping quiet, for some reason.
To be fair, Rory Stewart’s simple honesty — he fancies the job and reckons he’d be good at it: why can’t the rest speak so plainly? – has been cheering, but it’s not yet clear if he’s really a serious candidate.
On the whole, we’ve heard grimly little from the folk in the running about what they would actually do with the job.
Now, as a full-time policy nerd, I’m obviously biased, but I do think that anyone who aspires to be PM needs to have an agenda beyond shouting 'I love the precious Brexit' to the tune of Hope and Glory.
Which is why I came away from a recent encounter with Matt Hancock feeling surprisingly upbeat. (I am rarely mistaken for a ray of sunshine.)
Hancock was at an SMF seminar to talk about rising lifespans and their implications for healthcare. In other words, doing his day job as health secretary. What struck me was Hancock’s willingness to stray beyond his ministerial brief with lessons from the health sector for other policy areas. Areas like education.
'The long-term plan for the NHS has been a real success – it has allowed us to set out a strategy for the role health plays in our society,' Hancock said. 'We now need to have a similar long-term plan for education, to take account the massive changes underway in the word and that we need to bring in to the way we educate people, not just up to the age of 18 and not just students, but all the way throughout their lives.'
A long-term plan for education. A plan that looks beyond higher education and into lifelong-learning, technical and vocational education. A plan to prepare the population for lives where work continues, in some form, well past 70 and a career lasts 50 years and more. These are all sensible concepts, remarkable mainly for how rarely they seem to get debated in Conservative circles, which is why I think Hancock’s suggestion deserves attention.
Education, I suggest, is one of the most grievously under-thought issues of recent politics. Educational levels are a very good predictor of Brexit voting, more so than age: people with degrees (of all ages) tended to vote Remain; people without (of all ages) tended to vote Leave. In a not unrelated observation, Britain’s economy, culture and politics are increasingly dominated by those who have university degrees; and people with degrees tend increasingly to marry other people with degree then have children who will get degrees, creating social and economic citadels that those without higher education struggle to enter.
Meanwhile Leave-voting areas of the UK have more of the sort of jobs that are vulnerable to automation in future, meaning workers will have a need to retrain during their working lives.
Away from its eye-catching but misguided promise to scrap university tuition fees (and thus ask taxpayers to subsidise the education of many middle-class kids), Labour has been developing some solid ideas for education in its National Education Service. But education (the issue that was David Cameron’s frontbench springboard to leadership, remember) doesn’t figure much in conversations about future Tory policy. Hence my interest in Hancock’s remarks.
What might a future Tory policy on education look like? Don’t be too surprised if you hear about Singapore’s SkillsFuture Credit: a personal budget topped up by the state that can be used to fund training at any point in adult life. Canada recently borrowed the idea in its 2019 Budget, establishing Canada Training Benefit and a training credit that accrues annually. Canada and Singapore don’t have much in common, but they do both have populations that already have very high levels of education. So if they think this stuff is worth doing to prepare for the future, it’s probably worth thinking hard about.
Which is what Matt Hancock appears to be doing. Will he run for Tory leader? I have no idea. Should he be Tory leader? As a non-Tory, I have no view. Is he likely to contribute interesting ideas to a leadership debate painfully short of them so far? Yes.