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Conservative Party Conference 2020: Summary from the virtual front row

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Conservative Party Conference 2020: Summary from the virtual front row

With coronavirus having a lasting impact on communities across the country, the Conservative Party held its virtual conference online this week. Culminating in the traditional keynote address from the Leader, Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to party members, not in a packed hall, but through a bespoke digital platform. Evoking patriotism and hope for our future, the enthusiastic vision the PM outlined contrasts with the storm clouds on the horizon of potential further lockdown restrictions and a no deal Brexit.

  • Throughout conference, the Government was keen not to let COVID-19 define its agenda and there was a clear attempt to move the political agenda forward. Saying that the economy cannot return to the status quo, the PM embraced the Green Industrial Revolution so the UK can emerge from the crisis stronger and “Build Back Better”. However, the Government struggled to keep COVID-19 off the agenda with Health Secretary Matt Hancock having to defend and explain how the NHS Test and Trace scheme lost significant amounts of personal data, possibly contributing to the spread of the virus, during the conference.
  • While COVID-19 restrictions may have led to the Conservative Party Conference being a much more low-key event than usual, some in the Government may not be too disappointed in the current circumstances. With tensions brewing on the Conservative backbenchers over the Government’s imposition of restrictions, critics of the Government had reduced platforms and opportunities to challenge the Prime Minister or his handling of the crisis.

Where keynote speeches set out the Government’s stall, fringe events are a useful insight into the views of the next generation of ministers, party activists and the private sector’s call to action. Across the conference, Instinctif’s Public Policy team attended many virtual events across a wide range of policy areas:

The Economy

  • Chancellor Rishi Sunak had a tough job on Monday when he stood up to deliver his first speech as Chancellor to activists. With plenty to say about his first few months in office, Sunak sought to deliver a message that was confident in the direction of travel whilst still addressing the tough decisions that were to come in relation to the economy. Sunak remains popular with members and remains the heir apparent; however, with difficult decisions to come, how long he remains the most popular person in Government remains to be seen.
  • Sunak was careful to reassure the Tory base with mounting unease at the growing size of the state and ever-increasing spending. He reiterated the Government’s commitment to economic management and bringing borrowing down, while accepting that challenges lie ahead.
  • Knowing the Government must make some difficult decisions in its Spring Budget, calls for a complete review of the tax system came as no surprise. With many arguing that it has become overcomplicated and prone to abuse, there will be increased pressure on the Chancellor to reduce the burden for individuals and businesses. These calls to return to a more traditional conservative economic approach were echoed by calls for the Government to back a growth-based economic strategy that reduces regulation and reduces the size of the state to let the free market do its job.

Energy and Environment

  • Following on from a bumper 2019 conference for the Conservative Environment Network (CEN), this year’s conference again saw the Conservatives attempt to paint themselves as leading the way on the issue of decarbonisation and setting the political agenda on the green recovery. Conservative MPs and activists roundly supported the Government’s net zero target, something that would have been unthinkable a mere 5 or 10 years ago.
  • Clearly, the new generation of Conservative MPs are supportive of green issues. A result of enthusiastic campaigning from CEN and a demand for action from voters. The Class of 2019 are keen to cement themselves as Conservatives and conservationists.
  • Having been promised for a while, Ministers appear to have confirmed that the release of the long-awaited Energy White Paper is imminent. Privately, MPs are frustrated at the delay arguing it has led to consumer and investor uncertainty. You can expect further detail on the Government’s commitment to offshore wind, green and blue hydrogen and carbon capture and storage. Combined with the Government’s recent lifetime skills guarantee, the Conservatives are committed to driving and leading the Green Industrial Revolution.
  • Across the conference, there was a consensus that the Government needs to bring the public along with them on the path to net zero journey. With decarbonisation of housing one of the great challenges, MPs and commentators called for greater effort in communicating homeowners’ options and keeping the costs as low as possible to encourage action.

Health and Social Care

  • There is no doubt that MPs and party members see COVID-19 as the catalyst for real, bipartisan reform of the social care sector and investment in NHS staff and carers. With widespread acknowledgement that the pandemic will fundamentally change healthcare services in the UK, both service deliverers, and party members, were clear in calling for Government to provide detail on its plans to reform social care. With plans to continue its record investment in the NHS, build new hospitals (eight are underway with another 40 planned between now and 2030) and invest in more doctors and nurses, the Conservative Party is clearly trying to reassure the electorate the NHS is in safe hands.
  • More so than at conferences in recent years, the issue of social care was a popular subject of fringe events. While the issue has been a political football over the past few decades, there was a sense that the Party needed to work with the Labour Party and get on with much needed reforms.
  • A recurring theme was the need to support the elderly in their homes for as long as possible with a focus on ensuring quality of life, not just life.

Housing and Planning

  • The main message to Generation Rent at conference was the Government’s continued commitment to transform the planning system and to help more first-time buyers get on to the housing ladder. This included a newly announced 95% mortgage plan. While the detail on the how this would be funded was noticeably missing, the provision of a long-term, fixed-rate mortgage is projected to create two million more homeowners – with the PM dubbing them ‘Generation Buy’.
  • The government clearly views making housing affordable as part of their ‘levelling up agenda’. In his speech, the Prime Minister stressed his commitment that everyone across the country must have the opportunity of home ownership. A commitment to build more homes in the North, combined with infrastructure investment, illustrates that delivering for the now Tory held ‘red wall’ seats is still very much part of the Government’s agenda.

Transport and Infrastructure

  • Transport and infrastructure are integral to the Government’s ‘Build Back Better’ agenda and its commitment to ‘level up’. With many MPs from the Class of 2019 representing communities that are severely lacking in connectivity, there is a buzz amongst some members that a more integrated transport network could finally be coming down the line.
  • With decarbonisation a big theme for the conference, how it can be done in transport was widely discussed. There was a feeling emerging on the fringes that while the Government has given ambitious timescales and a direction, it still needs to provide more certainty and support to industry. This lack of certainty comes as a clear battle between competing technologies: hydrogen and electric. While hydrogen was very prominent this year, it was clear much scepticism remains and many on the fringes are unclear how the technology works. There was some consensus to be found that heavy transport and freight were more suited to hydrogen. Electric vehicles remain a big subject of discussion with the lack of infrastructure being the major talking point.

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