Political Insider: Conservative Party Conference
Earlier this year, as Boris Johnson reached his second anniversary in No10, it became popular to characterise the Government as being unfocused and visionless.
This was in part because people were looking for answers about what the Prime Minister hoped to achieve in the 2020s beyond getting Brexit done and defeating a once in a century pandemic, but also because his most senior adviser for his first 18 months in office had begun his select committee / Substack / Twitter offensive against “The Trolley” and his wife, Carrie Johnson. But whilst Dominic Cummings’s vengeful characterisation of the Government was very effective at shaping the political narrative before the summer, it now looks completely misplaced a few months on.
The decision after the summer to increase taxation to pay to clear the NHS backlog and increase the funding for social care was certainly not the action of an indecisive Prime Minister. This was immediately followed by a far-reaching shakeup of the Government, promoting ‘boosterish’ doers capable of delivery. And this week we had the Conservative Party conference, which was light on policy announcements but heavy on big political calls.
The big call on energy is a doubling down on net zero. In the face of increasing gas prices, the Government announced its commitment to ensuring that all of Britain’s electricity comes from renewable sources by 2035, thereby reducing our dependence on gas and coal. To back this up, the Government is set to announce two large scale nuclear power plants in addition to Hinkley Point, to assist the transition away from gas.
And the big call on the UK labour market is to reduce the country’s dependence on workers from overseas, who are willing to accept the low wages that have become a feature of so many sectors of the economy. This is a big and risky call. As ministers acknowledged, it will result in supply chain issues and a somewhat bumpy transition. But to use the phrase from Margaret Thatcher echoed by the PM – there is no alternative. As he said in his conference speech, he wants to build a “high-wage, high-skill, high productivity and, yes, low tax economy.”
Other announcements made in Manchester, such as Dominic Raab’s review of the Human Rights Act, received less prominence, but have the potential to be as significant as the calls on energy and employment. What we are seeing is a Government reorientating itself from being all consumed by single points of focus (Brexit/Covid), to one which wants to use its 80-seat majority to fundamentally reshape the country in the 2020s.
Commentators might like these calls, or not like them, and there is certainly a policy debate to be had around each one. But when it comes to the accusation that the Government is unfocused and visionless, that has been decisively refuted. The Prime Minister has had a strong start to the Autumn, showing himself to be more of a tank than a trolley. As for Keir Starmer, whilst his conference wasn’t disastrous, it did highlight just how far the Labour Party is from No10, which is why the 2020s look set to be Boris’s decade.
Matthew Elliott is a Senior Adviser to MHP and was CEO of Vote Leave