By Joe Cooper
One of the highlights of the political calendar, party conference season is rarely a dull affair. Often the highpoint of conference, the leaders’ speeches provide the opportunity to either set the political agenda for the coming months, or to announce themselves to the public for the very first time – as was the case with Sir Keir Starmer’s first conference speech last week.
The Conservative Party’s annual conference comes during a particularly challenging time for the Government. Fuel and labour shortages continue to blight the country, the energy crisis and the collapse of a number of smaller energy suppliers provides uncertainty for consumers, and many are about to see their Universal Credit cut by £20 per week.
Although the Prime Minister denied that the ongoing fuel shortage was a crisis, but rather a natural result of the “stresses and strains you’d expect from a giant waking up” after the pandemic, there is little doubt that the Government has its hands full if it is to avoid a long and difficult winter. The Winter of Discontent still lingers in the country’s collective psyche, and the Government will be acutely aware of the potential long-term consequences that mismanagement of the coming months could deliver for the Conservative Party.
Against this backdrop, the Government will be looking to rejuvenate a number of its domestic political agendas to steer it back on track.
The Levelling-Up agenda continues to drive much of the Government’s domestic programme. The recent reshuffle saw the appointment of Michael Gove at the head of the new Department for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities. Though the renaming of the department may be gimmicky in nature, it does suggest that this agenda is here to stay.
In Gove’s keynote speech to conference, he outlined the four principles behind levelling up: strengthening local leadership; raising living standards; improving public services; and enhancing pride in local communities. While this represents one of the first major efforts from the Government to add flesh to the bones of the agenda, further clarity will still need to be provided if it is to prove a success. Keep an eye out for the Levelling Up White Paper later this year, which is expected to build on Gove’s announcements in more depth.
Internal party politics also continue to present an issue for the delivery of the programme. While levelling up has always been a broad, all-encompassing project spanning policy areas such housing, jobs and skills, to transport, education and local government – with it comes a degree of politicking between departments. If Gove is to drive this agenda forward, he may find himself treading on the toes of other ministers, and the Treasury in particular may prove difficult at a time in which it is looking to support the recovery from the pandemic.
Recent polling from YouGov revealed that the Conservatives currently stand to lose as many as 32 of the 50 ‘Red Wall’ it gained in the 2019 election. With the threat of many of his colleagues losing their seats, expect increasing pressure on the Prime Minister to make levelling up a success and deliver visible improvements across these newly-won areas.
Supporting people into work
With the end of the furlough and the uplift to Universal Credit, the focus for the Government has shifted back to supporting people into work. Speaking yesterday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s tone and emphasis on fiscal responsibility and avoiding ‘leaning ever more on the state’ felt very much like a return to business for the Conservative Party following 18 months of unprecedented levels of state intervention during the pandemic. The Chancellor instead highlighted his priority for “good work, better skills and higher wages”, along with announcing the extension of the Kickstart Scheme aimed at supporting young people into work.
Speculation has also been rife regarding a potential increase to the minimum wage. While the minimum wage was a source of contention at the Labour Party conference for different reasons altogether, a move from the Government to increase the current £8.91 rate may buy it some much needed political capital at a time in which it is most needed. All eyes now turn to the Prime Minister’s speech on Wednesday, where he is expected to set out the next steps in the recovery from the pandemic.