Conservative Party Conference

Conservative Party Conference

  • Alex Jones-Casey
  • 03 October 2017
  • Posted in: Health & Social Care, Energy & Environment, Planning & Development

It’s difficult not to equate this year’s political party conference season to an ill-thought out festival line-up.

The Liberal Democrats kicked things off with a warm-up act, playing crowd pleasers like Vince Cable’s pledge to provide an exit to Brexit and occupy the elusive ‘middle ground’ in British politics.

The Labour Party conference in Brighton was a jubilant, energetic headliner act. Fuelled by a palpable atmosphere of change; full of scarf waving and decibel-raising crowd participation.

This week in Manchester, the Conservatives felt like the nervous act waiting in the wings, thinking ‘We have to follow that?’

Granted, given the circumstances, the Conservatives have every right to be concerned about their ‘set’.

Akin to Manchester’s most renowned Britpop band, the Conservatives’ line-up is seemingly incapable of seeing eye-to-eye. With the front bench split over Brexit bleeding into the public domain in the form of Boris Johnson’s 4,000-word Telegraph essay and the ensuing furore it created around his tenability as Foreign Secretary; compounded by the 30,000 protestors taking to the streets of Manchester on the first day of the Conservative Party conference, united under the message ‘Tories Out’. Throw in the Financial Times’ front-page headline ‘Britain sinks to bottom of G7 growth table’ on the morning of conference opening (the UK occupied top spot before the Brexit referendum), there seemed like little worth celebrating as the Conservative Party descended on the Manchester Central Convention Complex.  

This week’s conference was an opportunity to reassure the nation that it’s in capable hands. However, The Conservative conference has been, according a writer from The Economist and delegate working under the pseudonym ‘Bagehot’: “essentially contracted out to corporations, lobbyists, PR people and career politicians”, a trend that some amongst us may recognise in Britain’s public services.  

Leading into the four-day event, the Conservatives announced plans to freeze tuition fees at £9,250 per year and raise the payback threshold from £21,000 to £25,000. Prime Minister Theresa May said: “We are pledging to help students with an immediate freeze in maximum fee levels and by increasing the amount graduates can earn before they start paying their fees back.” Additionally, the PM hailed a fresh investment of $10 billion to expand the Help to Buy scheme; with the extra funding being allocated to 135,000 first time buyers who, with the help of the scheme, are able to get a mortgage on a new-build home with a deposit of just 5% of the net price; a scheme first introduced by the Chancellor turned newspaper editor George Osborne in 2013. The PM noted: “The idea that once you got a job you’d be able to buy your own home and start a family is no longer a given. The only way we’ll fix that is building more homes over time. But we are going to do more now to help support those who want to buy but can’t quite afford it.”

However, despite the window-dressing, many within the Conservative Party recognise that these are tepid offers in comparison with the radical changes proposed by Labour. Katie Perrior, a former political advisor to both Theresa May and Boris Johnson commented:

"If we want to be the party that appeals to the young, we can’t really afford these mediocre-type offers."

The Prime Minister’s policy chief, George Freeman MP, went one step further; warning that his party could ‘sleep walk into electoral wipe out’ if it fails to effectively address the issues facing young people.      

The current Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond addressed the Conservative conference on Monday, with a speech that included confirmation of a £400 million investment pledge to boost northern connectivity; creating networks between the HS2 rail route and ‘Northern Powerhouse’ cities such as Manchester, York, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield (another brainchild of Osborne's) as well as 33 new road schemes. Aside from confirming the extra funding being allocated to northern connectivity, the Chancellor spent much of his time at the lectern lambasting Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, rather than announcing any new policies that reinforce the Conservatives strong free market economic principles: “We have to explain why and how the market economy works and the role of competition as the consumer’s friend. I think we owe it to the next generation to show how Corbyn’s Marxist policies will inevitably lead us back to where Britain was in the 1970s.

In response to the Chancellor’s speech, business leaders have suggested taking action that increases investment and strengthens infrastructure will always reassure industry more than words. Carolyn Fairbairn, Director General of the Confederation of British Industry noted Hammond’s diatribe represents ‘a government strong on diagnosis, but weak on action. The UK is facing a generation-defining challenge. A potent cocktail of Brexit uncertainty and dogma-driven politics on both the left and right threatens jobs, investment and living standards. Now is not the time for half-measures.”     

Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, began his address to conference with a tongue-in-cheek reference to his new position within the cabinet: “It’s wonderful to be here in Manchester – speaking to you as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The fact that I’m on this stage this year is proof that this government is committed to recycling. And, let me tell you, no-one is a bigger supporter of re-using once discarded material than me. So I’m naturally keen on politicians coming back to the frontline from a period of doing other things.” Aside from self-deprecation, Mr. Gove’s speech included vows to ensure a ‘green Brexit’ and introduce tougher legislation to reprimand animal abusers, pledging that the Conservatives will: “take the tough action necessary to deal with those whose callousness or greed inflicts pain and suffering on innocent creatures… when we face deliberate, calculating and sadistic behaviour, we need to deploy the full force of the law to show we will not tolerate evil.”

Work and Pensions Secretary, David Gauke, confirmed plans to roll out the much-maligned Universal Credit scheme; a consolidation of several benefit payments into one monthly instalment originally championed by former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions under David Cameron’s administration, Iain Duncan Smith. Despite warnings from across the party-political spectrum that claimants may be left without any money for up to six weeks. Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams voiced strong concerns that the lengthy waiting times for benefit payments are causing already struggling people to be driven even further into debt and rent arrears: “The government’s flagship universal credit programme is in total disarray. It is unacceptable that one in four claimants are waiting more than six weeks to receive support, alongside mounting debts and arrears amongst recipients.” In the week prior to the Conservatives conference, 12 Tory MPs, including a former parliamentary aide to the aforementioned Iain Duncan-Smith, Andrew Selous, wrote to Mr. Gauke calling for the roll out of Universal Credit to be halted given the negative impact it has already had on claimants in trials. Dame Louise Casey, responsible for a year-long study into community cohesion, compared the notion of rolling out the Universal Credit system as ‘jumping over a cliff’ and that it made her ‘hair stand on end’.  

The National Health Service has become somewhat of a ‘political football’, kicked back-and-forth between the Tories and Labour according to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who scored a bit of an own-goal when he claimed that it was the Conservatives who set up the NHS; telling delegates: “Nye Bevan deserves credit for founding the NHS in 1948. But that wasn’t him, or indeed any Labour minister. That was the Conservative Health Minister in 1944, Sir Henry Willink, whose white paper announced the setting up of the NHS. He did it with cross-party support. And for me that’s what the NHS should always be: not a political football, not a weapon to win votes but there for all of us with support from all of us.” This prompted cross-party backlash, with Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth stating: “Jeremy Hunt’s claim the Tories created the NHS is laughable. The Tories fought it tooth and nail all the way through parliament on a three-line whip. In fact, they voted against the creation of the NHS 22 times including at the third reading.” Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine joined the derision of Mr. Hunt’s comments, adding: “The Liberal Democrats have long argued that a cross-party approach is urgently needed to secure the future of the NHS and care. But time and again the government has ignored these calls.”   

The Health Secretary also used his speech at the conference to affirm his plans to increase the number of nurses in the NHS by 25%, introduce more flexible working for NHS staff and announce that NHS employees would get first refusal on affordable homes built on NHS land that has been sold to developers:

“I can tell you we’ll increase the number of nurses we train by 25% - that’s a permanent increase of more than 5,000 nurse training places every single year. And we’ll do that not just by increasing traditional university places, but also by tripling the number of Nursing Associates so people already in the NHS can become a registered nurse after a four-year apprenticeship without having to do a traditional full-time university degree… today I’m also announcing that new flexible working arrangements will be offered to all NHS employees during this parliament. And we’ll start next year with 12 trusts piloting a new app-based flexible working offer to their staff. 

Mr. Hunt’s proposals received a mixed response from the health profession, with Janet Davies, Chief Executive and Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing stating: “Significant increases to training numbers is welcome – we desperately need more nurses. However, they must be educated to the highest standards. We are concerned at the risk of students plugging the gaps in the current workforce at the expense of quality patient care and their own learning experience.” And in a show of support for the flexible working policy, Ms. Davies said:

“Greater flexibility for nurses working extra shifts, supported by new technology, should improve their experience and we support this move.”

The Conservatives are in full damage-control mode, still reeling from the disastrous general election result, cabinet disputes played out in national newspapers and a growing public dissatisfaction with the government’s austerity programme; particular the 1% public sector pay cap. This has been compounded by recent reports that suggest Party membership has dropped as low as 100,000, with some areas boasting less than 100 members; these are trying times for the party that has prided itself on being ‘the natural party of government’.

Another cloud looms large over the Conservative Party conference; Brexit. The Brexit beast has been at the door of the Tory party since long before the 2016 referendum, and on day-two of this week’s Conservative conference, members of the European Parliament in Brussels overwhelmingly passed a motion that states ‘sufficient progress has not been made’ in the Brexit negotiations in order to progress onto phase two. Manfred Webber, leader of the European People’s Party and an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel went as far as to say: “Theresa May please don’t put your party first. Please put Britain first. Please sack Boris Johnson because we need a clear answer who is responsible for the British position.” Guy Verhofstadt, the European Union’s lead Brexit spokesman also contributed to the Tory’s Brexit-blues when he addressed MEPs on the state of the negotiations:

“There is a lack of clarity, there is even disunity. There are oppositions between Hammond and Fox. There are divisions between Johnson and May. It is difficult to make sufficient progress. It is difficult to make the steps towards the second phase of the negotiations.”

International Trade Secretary, Dr. Liam Fox, the man responsible for forging Britain’s trading partnerships in the post-Brexit landscape used his keynote address to paint a far more positive outlook of British infrastructure ‘despite Brexit’: “We have the highest number of people in employment ever, despite Brexit. Last year, we had the highest inward investment into the UK ever, creating over 75,000 new jobs and safeguarding over 32,000 others, despite Brexit. We have new cars being built in Sunderland and Cowley, amongst the highest economic growth rates in the developed world, an 11% rise in exports and the best order books for British manufacturers in 22 years.” Dr. Fox is optimistic about Britain’s future outside the EU, citing discussions with Australia, India, New Zealand, Brazil and the United States. Let’s hope these ‘future relationships’ don’t reflect the 220% preliminary tariff imposed by Donald Trump’s administration on Bombardier C Series jets made in Belfast…

And then, there was that speech. 

On the heels of Theresa May’s Florence Speech that confirmed the government’s plans to enter a transitional period after Brexit; the Prime Minister stepped onto the stage in the Manchester Central Convention Complex to deliver an address that pledged to “renew the British dream for a new generation.” However, by the time Mrs. May stepped off the stage, she was probably hoping to wake from a very British nightmare.

Theresa May’s conference address was as close to a disaster as one could be. From the set stage falling apart behind her, to a prankster approaching the stage to offer her a P45 sheet and the persistent cough that marred, and even halted the speech. In credit to Mrs. May, she persevered through it all; even managing to make a quip about Phillip Hammond giving her a cough sweet mid-way through the painfully awkward proceedings: “That’s the Chancellor giving something away for free.”

Despite delivering a slew of new policy initiatives that included the highly touted cap on energy bills and a £2bn investment in affordable homes that councils and housing associations could bid for; this speech will be remembered for the gaffes and uncontrollable circumstances that have come to embody her premiership.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt put it most eloquently in his post-conference World at One interview:

"Well I think she came across as very human, in fairness, perhaps not in the way she had planned." 

It isn’t all doom and gloom for the Tories, though. Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson delivered a thumping speech to delegates in which she gloated about the resounding results north of the Anglo-Scottish border that arguably saved the Conservatives grip on power; or at least, delivered enough seats to facilitate the £1bn deal with the Democratic Unionist Party.

“I have watched as Nicola Sturgeon sold out rock venues. As she released a line of signature clothing. As she sold foam fingers to the faithful so they could point at the sky as she flew in a helicopter she’d slapped her face on, over their heads. I’ve read the commentary that said her momentum was irresistible, that everything would be swept before her. And that all the other parties in Scotland should just pack up and go home. Well, conference, I don’t like anyone telling me where to go… And, just as the SNP came crashing down to Earth, just as they lost 40% of their seats in June. Just as half a million Scots chose to take their vote away, so too can the Corbyn bubble burst”.

However, it may have been this line about London that the Conservative Party bemoaned, and Theresa May applauded:

“No plans to move there myself, but great to visit.”  

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About Alex Jones-Casey

Alex is a Conference Producer at Open Forum Events, joining the company in the summer of 2017.
As a Conference Producer, Alex is responsible for generating ideas and constructing plans for future events with the intention of providing actionable discussion and strategy for public-sector workers and stakeholders.
A recent graduate of Teesside Univer…