The Conservatives will assemble in Manchester over the weekend for the last of this year’s party conferences. For those not in Manchester, be prepared for a damp squib.
More often than not, the pressure is on for the party leadership to have a good conference and ‘reset the narrative’. This year though, the Conservatives will settle for a muted affair.
Conservatives will be quietly pleased that despite having a good conference, Labour made the mistake of helping market the Tory mantra about levelling up, and the party will make best efforts to keep the focus on this agenda.
The most interesting aspects of the conference, though, will likely fly under the radar and won’t feature on the TV news bulletins. The new-look Cabinet will get their first opportunity to set out their departmental agendas and onlookers will be keen to read the tea leaves about the changes the new guard will be making.
Michael Gove’s speech and his fringe circuit utterances will be eagerly awaited by those seeking to understand how he intends to get to grip with his huge new brief – fixing the housing supply crisis, local government finance, the levelling up agenda, and the not insignificant task of saving the Union
Nadine Dorries will get a chance to outline her vision for the Ministry of Fun and we should get a good read on her attitudes to the more serious aspects of her brief – the digital agenda, gambling, and telecom regulation.
The new Foreign Secretary will update us on the Government’s hardening attitude to China and we should expect a slew of climate change-related news to start the drumbeat ahead of the global climate change event, COP26, that the UK is hosting in just a few weeks’ time.
And the new Education and Health Secretaries will set out their stalls with the prospect of further top-down reforms, all with the backdrop of discontent from the respective unions.
But these policy and departmental issues rarely make the news. The media are interested in the factions, gaffes and more quirky aspects of these events.
The biggest concern for the Conservative Party will be around the recent tax rises and the growing warning signs flashing about the economy. Rishi Sunak will surely eat into his large pile of political capital with party members when he tries to justify the recent tax grabs. Party members and the business community will push him on the contradiction in monetary and fiscal policy as he tries to balance inflationary pressure (that actually enormously helps the Government manage its own debt) and the prospect of a slowing economy.
The parties try hard to control the narrative around their conferences but there’ll always be clangers and in reality, the measure of whether their conference has gone well will be judged on the management of the bad news. The Conservatives have a distinct advantage over the other parties in that there’s not much in the way of democracy in the party. In truth, the level of discontent and factions within the Conservative Party isn’t all that different from Labour but these schisms don’t get the oxygen their rival parties provide with allowing member’s motions to be debated and forcing the spectacle of political leaders forced to sit on stage as the membership vent their spleens.
Outside events, mostly relating to fuel shortages, meant the Labour conference had very little cut through outside of Brighton and among keen political observers. Boris and his new party chairman, Oli Dowden, will happily settle for something similar for this time next week.