FTI Consulting Public Affairs Snapshot – Conservatives in Manchester: levelling up and building back
This week, delegates, activists and MPs gathered in Manchester for the first Conservative Party Conference in two years and the first since the party’s convincing win at the 2019 General Election. The mood among activists was buoyant, given the Conservative’s relatively solid performance in the polls, but there was also a recognition of the enormous challenges facing the UK. FTI Consulting’s Public Affairs team takes a look at the week’s events.
It is two years since the Conservative Party last gathered in Manchester for its party conference.
While the warm wine, stuffy rooms and long queues at the bar have remained the same, much else has changed.
Two years ago, Boris Johnson presided over a minority government and a parliamentary party sharply divided by Brexit. Now he enjoys the largest Tory majority since 1987. “Coronavirus” was not a word, let alone a public health and economic phenomenon that was set to unimaginably upend the way we live our lives.
The Prime Minister – and the Conservative Party – were clearly keen to use the week to convey a sense of “normality”; with nary a facemask in sight at the conference, senior ministers taking part in cheek-by-jowl karaoke sessions in Manchester nightclubs and all the usual boozy bonhomie one would expect of a traditional party conference.
It would be fair to say that the media headlines heading into this week’s conference were far from favourable for the Conservatives. Concerns about fuel and labour shortages, acrimony over plans to scrap the temporary £20 universal credit uplift introduced during the coronavirus crisis and anger about the recent national insurance tax hike might have been expected to put a dampener on Tory spirits. But they didn’t. Instead, Conservative ministers, MPs and activists entered the conference with a spring in their step.
The reason for Conservative positivity is clear: the political fundamentals in the UK continue to favour the party. Despite what is seen as a successful party conference for the Labour leader Keir Starmer, the Conservatives continue to post a solid lead in voting intentions and outpoll Labour on public trust metrics on key issues like the economy, crime and the NHS.
In recent months, the Conservative Party has placed a laser-like focus on the concept of “levelling up” – that is, investing in growth and infrastructure outside of London and the South East in an effort to rebalance the British economy. That sentiment was very much in evidence during the course of the week, with the Conservative mayors of the West Midlands and Teesside, Andy Street and Ben Houchen, playing a prominent role at fringe events and debates during the course of the week. The Prime Minister and his team clearly believe they are onto something when it comes to the electoral benefits regional investment and devolution can bring.
The “levelling up” agenda is not, however, without a certain degree of political jeopardy. While the Conservatives are still basking in their gains in hitherto Labour fortresses in the north and Midlands in 2019, there was a sense of unease among delegates and MPs present at the recent loss of the Chesham and Amersham by-election. In the pursuit of “new” voters, they ask, is there a risk the party may be neglecting its traditional supporters. The Prime Minister’s championing of a minimum wage hike over policy tools like tax cuts for small businesses will have done little to quell these fears.
Veteran attendees at Conservative conferences are well used to the issue of Brexit dominating the week. From the “Keep the Pound” rallies of the William Hague era in the early 2000s to David Cameron’s conference pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership to Boris Johnson’s pre-election Brexit bombast in 2019, the issue has been all-encompassing.
Interestingly, the actual word “Brexit” was sparsely used this week. There was a keen sense among ministers that the issue is settled, the battle is won and that it is time to shift the narrative. “Global Britain” was the order of the hour. To this end, the likes of the new Foreign Secretary Liz Truss used her public remarks to highlight her aspirations for free trade deals and closer tie with rapidly growing economies in the Far East, with the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace cheerleading for NATO as Britain’s “most important multilateral relationship”.
It is natural that the bulk of the media attention at party conferences focusses on the speeches made in the main auditorium but those set-piece spectacles usually tell you little about the real feeling of the event and the frenzied politicking it hosts. If ministers were judged on the number of events they participated in, hands they shook and rallying cries they delivered to the Tory troops, the week’s winners would clearly be the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng. Interestingly, all three used their public appearances to emphasise their preference for lower taxes and lighter regulation – red meat for activists still smarting over the NI tax rise.
In a well-received speech to close the conference, the Prime Minister set out his broad vision for post-pandemic Britain. He opened by reminding the audience of the Conservative Party’s electoral performance in previously Labour-held areas and the UK’s vaccine rollout. He sought to distance himself, and his government, from the policies undertaken by administrations of all colours over the last four decades. He bemoaned the “decades of drift and dither” and “the old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity”, setting out his desire for a high wage, high productivity economy. This links closely with the levelling up agenda that undermines the Government’s domestic policy, a key theme of the Prime Minister’s speech.
He also emphasised the importance of addressing the social care crises head on, emphasising his belief that his government has the “guts” to address this intractable issues head on. Whilst in part directed at the public at large, it was also intended for the audience in the hall, many of whom are sceptical about the rise in national insurance and the wider burden being placed on taxpayers.
Overall, the Prime Minister’s team will have been pleased with today’s speech. An address peppered with humour and one-liners that also emphasised the key aspects of the Government’s agenda. Despite the positive rhetoric and reception in the hall, however, there are likely to be issues and challenges over the coming year that will test the sunny optimism on show today.
|The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.
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