A few short weeks ago, it would have been reasonable to assume that this year’s Conservative Party Conference would be somewhat of a victory lap for Boris Johnson and his new look Cabinet. A first in-person conference since the 2019 landslide election win, largely free from COVID restrictions following the successful vaccine roll out, and perhaps most importantly to much of the party faithful, a first chance to celebrate the UK’s departure from the European Union face to face.
And yet, the Conservatives descended on Manchester this week facing criticism and crisis on seemingly all fronts, with signs of a crumbling ‘red wall’, an energy crisis, fuel shortages still being keenly felt across much of the country, as well as Brexit once again dominating the news agenda.
While all of these challenges pose a significant problem to Johnson, perhaps the most substantive issue he faces is in defining the very nature of his government.
The Conservatives in recent months have pursued a series of economic policies that one would more likely expect of Labour, most notably in raising taxes via the new Health and Social Care Levy. This has left one question hanging over Party Conference: are the Conservatives still the party of low tax, small government?
What is clear is that this year’s party conference is the beginning of a transition for this Government, during which its economic and fiscal policy must adapt to the new realities of a post-pandemic world and economy.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak used his speech at conference to emphasise the party’s reputation for “fiscal responsibility” and made clear record borrowing and spending, and tax rises, would not be a long term feature of Boris Johnson’s Government.
At the same time, there has been a markedly frostier tone towards business. When defending his Government’s handling of the food and fuel shortages, Johnson stated that businesses have become too reliant on cheap, foreign labour; this reproach of businesses is a far cry from the traditional Tory approach to industry.
Indeed, this assessment of the causes of some of the country’s challenges is likely to be central pillar of Conservative policy moving forward; defining the current shortage of delivery drivers and butchers as less of a crisis, and more a short-term growing pain of a country and economy coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Government is instead focusing on the long-term, talking about the move towards a ‘high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy’ that will be catalysed by the levelling up agenda and Brexit.
Johnson’s conference speech itself was light on policy detail, but full of crowd pleasing rhetoric and bombastic language. He focused on the themes that will prove popular with Party members, and large swathes of voters, such as a robust defence of Winston Churchill, an attack on cancel culture, and a celebration of the successes of Brexit.
The detail that many, including business, crave, may well come at the Spending Review in three weeks’ time. That may be the moment when the real Conservative Party stands up.
As the Conservatives begin to work on the agenda which saw them elected in 2019, propel themselves into a new phase of government, and define their agenda in a post pandemic world, there has never been a more important time to engage in Whitehall and Westminster. If you would like an informal chat about your policy and political priorities, get in touch with the Brands2Life Public Affairs team, on [email protected]