Sat, 24 February 2024

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Six Big Themes To Watch At Conservative Party Conference

Boris Johnson heads back up to Manchester this weekend for the Conservative Party conference (Alamy)

8 min read

Boris Johnson’s first in-person Tory conference since winning a landslide election victory in 2019 could have been a celebratory lap of honour, but with Brexit and the pandemic having significantly changed the political landscape since, the Prime Minister could have a tricky week ahead.

Even the relative success of the vaccine roll-out looks likely to be eclipsed by continued calls for the government’s Coronavirus inquiry to be brought forward, and the looming threat of a tough winter. 

As Conservative party members, lobbyists and business groups descend on Manchester this week here are the key things to look out for:

1) Winter of discontent

This conference is taking place against a chaotic backdrop that many believe could only get worse as the nights draw in. 

Cars have been queued outside petrol stations all week as a result of a HGV driver shortage leading to empty fuel pumps. Predictions by ministers that everything is set to return to normal are yet to come to pass. 

There are also ongoing supply chain issues which have led to empty shelves up and down the country.

The gas crisis remains unresolved and business leaders are warning ministers of falling confidence ahead of an “autumn storm” hitting the cost of living.

The furlough scheme has now finished, and the day Johnson delivers his keynote address, where he apparently plans to stand in the centre of the room, rather than from the stage, the £20 Universal Credit uplift introduced to support people during the pandemic will end.

A raft of senior figures within his own party have joined charities and campaigners in criticising the cut, which the government has sought to dampen with the announcement of a new £500million winter hardship fund. Its critics have called it a “temporary sticking plaster,” however.

The government will have to use Conference to reassure businesses and members that they can fix the supply chain issues and avoid ruining Christmas.

2) Questions over whether Johnson will call an early election

When Johnson spoke to his newly-reshuffled Cabinet a fortnight ago, his spokesman described it as a “half-time pep talk”, and the incoming Tory chair Oliver Dowden told staff at Conservative Party headquarters that they must already begin preparing to go to the polls.

“You can’t fatten a pig on market day,” he said, repeating a favourite phrase of Conservative election strategist Lynton Crosby.

There is ongoing speculation that an election could be called early in May 2023, and although Westminster-watchers are divided as to whether Johnson will end up triggering an early ballot, all eyes in Manchester will be on the lookout for signals the party machinery is gearing up for one.

Former MP Paul Goodman, who now runs the website ConservativeHome, said moving Dowden from his position as Culture Secretary to a new role at CCHQ in the recent reshuffle is either “a demotion, or a sign that they really think the campaigning machine needs a shot in the arm”. 

Reports suggest if the Conservatives are only 18 months from an election, there is work to do.  

The Times reported staff are facing mass redundancy after refusing to move to a new office in Leeds. Just yesterday it was reported by The Mirror that Lucy Wheeler, a senior figure at party headquarters, left her post this week after being blamed for the by-election defeat to the Lib Dems in Chesham and Amersham.

An election in 2023 or even sooner is an attractive prospect, with the hope the economy is still in a post-pandemic bounce, before the impact of tougher spending decisions has kicked in, and before the results of an inquiry into the government’s handling of coronavirus. 

With a healthy lead in most polls Johnson would be assured victory, and the earlier an election is the less time Keir Starmer has to steady the Labour ship.

But there are fears within government that a difficult winter, with rising energy bills and increased inflation, could see their approval ratings fall. The Times has suggested Johnson will “go long” and wait until 2024 before holding an election and avoid the fate of Theresa May, whose decision to hold a snap vote in 2017 backfired spectacularly.

3) Liz Truss on the march

Conference gives a freshly reshuffled line-up of ministers a chance to set their stall out and speak to the membership for the first time, but one Cabinet member who needs no introduction is Liz Truss, already the darling of the grassroots.

By promoting her to Foreign Secretary, some believe Johnson made Truss a plausible rival to Rishi Sunak as his successor as Conservative leader. Her stock could rise even further when she addresses the party faithful in Manchester.

“During the conference I think gradually we're going to see an emerging story of Truss vs Sunak succession wars,” Goodman told PoliticsHome.

He said she has “got her song to sing with the small state low tax, mini-Thatcher, message”, and the challenge for her is whether she can carry on in that vein with her new foreign affairs responsibilities.

As for Sunak he is likely to try and allay fears among Conservatives about the state getting too big – with another railway firm renationalised just this week – by talking about dealing with the tax burden.

Goodman believes there is an “interesting question about who is going to be the leader of the internal opposition” post-pandemic, and what is going to be its overall focus.

4) Culture wars

The first few days of Labour’s conference in Brighton were overshadowed by the ongoing row over trans rights in the party after comments by MP Rosie Duffield that “only women have a cervix”.

She was criticised by Starmer and members of the Shadow Cabinet, but questions over the matter dominated media interviews as they tried to get their own message across, something Tory insiders say they are keen to avoid at their own event.

In a canny move Johnson’s wife Carrie has been confirmed as the guest of honour at the LGBT+ Conservatives’ “Annual Pride Reception” in Manchester, calling her a “long-standing ally and friend of the group”.

Wider so-called “culture war” issues that are also expected to be up for discussion. One fringe event is titled: “You can’t say that! Is free speech in peril?”

The most recent intake of MPs have proven much more willing than previous ones to enter into the debate on controversial subjects like critical race theory, removing statues commemorating Britain’s colonial past, and the overall so-called “war on woke”.

So expect ambitious 2019 MPs, some of whom are unhappy about missing out on promotion in the reshuffle, to make a name for themselves at fringe events discussing heritage and culture.

5) Climate clashes

It is now less than a month to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, with Johnson saying this week “we need everyone to bring their ambition and action”, which means agreeing “bold commitments on coal, cars, cash and trees”.

Green issues poll well within the party overall, and there is a strong push in northern areas for more investment in hydrogen, technology that could provide jobs as well as cleaner energy.

But tough targets on electric cars and scrapping gas boilers have caused consternation among MPs and members. Goodman believes this could be a key source of tension this week after a new backbench group has begun to mobilise with the slogan “The Cost of Net Zero”.

The PM possibly wants to save any important climate announcements for COP next month, seeing the Glasgow summit as being a potentially defining moment for him as leader. But it’s doubtful he can avoid questions over China and its carbon emissions to be brought up regularly before then.

6) Party discontent

From the government’s point of view their main aim is to get through Conference unscathed, so insiders are warning not to expect a raft of big policy announcements with the other major events happening later in the Autumn.

Along with COP26 there is a Budget and comprehensive spending review coming in November, meaning the Treasury could want to keep its powder dry until then.

Despite calls to set out what “levelling up” will mean, a long-awaited white paper on this due later in the year may mean new Levelling Up secretary Michael Gove will resist going into too much detail.

That does not mean the party won’t be under pressure to provide answers on these things, and there could be visible discontent over tax rises and increased state intervention at fringes as the Tories grapple with their post-2019 identity.

John Strafford, chair of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, is organising a fringe event titled “Time for the Conservative Party to be Conservative”, reminding Johnson that while the party managed to lure swathes of former Labour voters into backing them for the first time, the members who turn up at Conference still represent the historic party supporters.

Johnson’s toughest job will be to prove to the Tory die-hards that he remains truly Conservative after huge spending and now incoming tax rises – policies more closely associated with Labour – and soothe fears the Tories are moving away from their core voter base in the South.

After losing the Chesham and Amersham by-election to the Lib Dems in June, a YouGov poll  saw the party drop 8% in seats they held in the South and East of England.

Ditching controversial housing plans, as well as Robert Jenrick, the former Housing, Communities and Local Government secretary who was pushing them through, is seen as a easing discontent on the backbenches, but shire Tories will be looking for plenty of reassurance that “levelling up” in the Midlands and the North won’t come at their expense.

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