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Well, that’s it. Party Conference season is over, and the suitcases have trundled back to Westminster for the return of Parliament in a week’s time. But what can we learn from Conservative Conference this week?
In terms of policy news, the answer is – not all that much. With the Spending Review just around the corner at the end of this month, it looks like Boris Johnson and his Chancellor have kept the big-ticket announcements up their sleeves for a big reveal at the dispatch box at the Autumn Budget on 27th October. This left journalists milling about the Conference hotel bar in Manchester desperate for anything to fill the broadsheets – meaning it was stories of loose-tongued backbenchers and dancing Cabinet ministers making the headlines, rather than the usual financial pledges trailed on the breakfast shows.
It was behind the scenes at the fringes where the reported 10,000 delegates could really get their teeth into the detail. Lively discussions were held on a range of topics, with new ministers fresh to their briefs inviting all ideas to upend the system and contribute to a radical vision for the future. But there was one issue which loomed larger than life across the board. Flipping through the fringe guide, thinktank, commercial and Party listings were dominated by decarbonisation events, leaving businesses in no doubt that the conversation around net-zero will continue to underscore the policy discourse in the coming months, and indeed years.
Despite the generalised jubilation at being back together after the two-year Conference gap, at times the atmosphere amongst the membership felt a little bit flat. The Prime Minister’s own loyalists seem hazy on the vision – the Conference slogans being ‘Build Back Better’ and ‘Getting on with job’ – but what exactly is the job? No one seemed absolutely sure. The Conference chatter suggested that Party members are concerned about the long-term consequences of tax rises, ‘Nanny State’ interventions on public health, and potentially costly net-zero policies which could disillusion ‘Red Wall’ voters who put a cross in the Conservative box for the first time in 2019. And yet on the other side of the spectrum, rumblings of concern could be heard that the Conservatives could find themselves squeezed at both ends – with Liberal Democrat-leaning voters in the South disappointed by the Government’s stance on international aid, immigration, and Brexit.
Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are ripping up the rule book of traditional left-right policy positioning to carve out an alternative approach that they hope will unite the country across geographical, political and socio-economic divides ahead of the next election. But this has resulted in an embryonic melting pot of policy that has been suffering an identity crisis and is in need of a concrete plan.
With this in mind, if Boris Johnson’s Leaders’ speech on Wednesday struggled to cut through outside the Conference bubble, it certainly did the important job of appeasing and reenergising his flock. The Prime Minister expertly addressed the challenges of taxation and economic decline head-on, and revisited the winning rhetoric of the 2019 General Election – winning hearts and minds on Levelling Up, post-Brexit opportunities, and the infamous ‘British Spirit’. ‘Build, Build, Build’ is not forgotten and will be the driving force behind Johnson’s grand infrastructure ambitions across the rest of this Parliament. Boris Johnson remains formidable in his ability to enrapture an audience, and this was a vintage example of how he can win over a crowd. And, with this year’s Conference taking place in the context of a bad run of publicity for the Government and the ongoing fuel crisis, the Prime Minister’s team will be especially pleased with his performance – it may not have significantly moved the dial with the general public, but it has reset the political scorecard.
In fact, regardless of scepticism around the Government’s seemingly mismatched policy platform, the cult of Johnson is alive and well. An unforgiving Party, Conservative Conference is typically characterised by mutterings of ‘rising stars’ and leadership challenges. But not a peep of that this year – the Prime Minister was showing face left, right and centre. And when it comes to the threat across the Commons floor, this Conservative Party remains unperturbed.
Boris Johnson’s job now is to shape his ambitions into one, cohesive narrative that can bring together a broad coalition for electoral success, whilst delivering against the conservative values that the Party’s membership will defend to the hilt and expect to see at the heart of any policy platform. For the Prime Minister, the key to achieving this will be showing results – tangible outcomes to prove that his vision is working and that the UK is on the right track. This is where business comes into play.
Whilst commentators have painted a picture of strained relations between industry and the Government – with the Prime Minister pointing the finger at business for fuelling a low wage, low skill culture – it is nevertheless true that Boris Johnson wants business to be part of the reforms he is undertaking. He implored the Conference to encourage wealth creators, “because they are responsible for the aggregate increase in the country’s wealth that enables us to… level up everywhere”. But the Prime Minister is keen to see solutions from business to the issues he has marked out as his standards for success. Investing in skills, developing infrastructure, fixing the housing market, and embracing digital; all in the name of solving the productivity puzzle.
One thing is sure. With a healthy majority under his belt and a membership appeased for now (if not entirely forgiving) Boris Johnson’s Government is here to stay and ready to press on with its grand ambitions.
Account Director, Public Affairs
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