Dispatches from Tory Conference, by Thomas Woolhouse
For those who have experienced Conservative Party Conference first-hand, you will agree that it can be a peculiar experience unlike any other trade show or industry get together. Government Ministers are treated like rock stars, the hotel bar resembles the Black Hole of Calcutta, whilst the presence of the Conservative Party faithful ensures a steady parade of local councillors, dedicated grassroots activists, ruthlessly ambitious networkers, and brightly coloured chinos.
Between all this, there is the main exhibition hall, featuring stands and stalls from a multitude of organisations, numerous panel events on every policy issue imaginable, and speeches in the main auditorium by key Government Ministers. However, Party Conference really comes alive at night when various receptions ensure a steady flow of wine and one can potentially spot well known MPs chain-smoking, dancing, or enjoying karaoke.
Admittedly, 2021 was a stranger Party Conference than usual. This was partly because the 2020 conference was held virtually due to COVID-19, and attendees were clearly pleased to mingle in person once again. The other source of this strangeness was how the mood was so upbeat, despite the widespread supply chain and energy challenges facing the UK economy and which have seen the Government face a difficult fortnight in the press.
Of course, it is easy to be upbeat when the Conservative Party continues to lead in the polls, and the party membership appears to have embraced the new narrative that these difficulties are a natural part of the UK’s transition to a high paid and high skilled post-Brexit economy.
It has been argued that the Prime Minister has taken a gamble and risks positioning himself as a leader burying his head in the sand or alienating UK plc. However, the 2019 General Election victory remains fresh in the minds of the Conservative Party which has one eye on the next campaign.
Despite these economic challenges, it is hoped that Boris has identified the winning strategy to outflank the Labour Party (which advocates further immigration to address supply chain shortages) and ensure that Conservative hegemony in the Red Wall is maintained.
Alongside this, Party Conference was remarkably light on new policy announcements. Most speeches by Ministers lasted little more than ten minutes and primarily provided the various members of the Cabinet (particularly those promoted in the recent reshuffle) with a platform to show themselves, rally the troops and boost their profile.
Similarly, Boris’ speech on the final day of conference appeared focused on everything but policy. Instead, he drew upon every atom of his impressive rhetorical skill to criticise Insulate Britain, champion the success of the vaccination programme, defend Britain’s heritage, and reinforce his commitment to Levelling Up the Red Wall and other left behind parts of the country.
This winning combination was received with adulation by attendees in the main auditorium and (in my view) was certainly more engaging than the speech delivered in Brighton by Keir Starmer. The Leader of the Opposition continues his long journey to overcome the hard-left elements of the Labour Party inherited from Jeremy Corbyn and to position Labour as a credible alternative government.
He may well be the Neil Kinnock of this story, with other ambitious and centrist Labour politicians, such as Andy Burnham (who appeared at Conservative Party Conference to discuss his plans for Transport for the North), waiting in the wings to return to Westminster.
Regardless, there was little pressure on Boris to delve too deeply into the details of Government policy, for there is yet another set piece political event around the corner. On 27th October, the Chancellor will announce his Spending Review and Autumn Budget: detailing how the Government will invest in key areas like transport infrastructure, technical skills training, Net Zero and housebuilding – Levelling Up in action!
It will also unenviably fall on the Chancellor to announce where public spending will be cut. The economic challenges which have arisen due to COVID-19 were addressed by the PM in his conference speech, and he called upon the memory of Mrs Thatcher to justify the need to raise taxes and take tough spending decisions.
The recent vote to raise National Insurance Contributions to help overcome the NHS backlog and fund social care continues to sit uneasily amongst many in the party. There is also an expectation that the Government must show tangible results around Levelling Up and in other policy areas side-lined by the pandemic. However, for the moment, Boris Johnson has left Manchester as king of his domain. He did what he does best and brought the feel good factor to his MPs and party members. However, with a fragile economy and tough choices facing the Government (not to mention HM Treasury and BEIS briefing against one another) how long this feeling will last is another matter entirely.