What did we learn from Tory Conference?

Andrew McDonald

 

The Conservatives descended on Manchester yesterday for their annual policy discussion and drunken get-together. With a no-deal Brexit looming and a general election possibly on the cards, what, if anything can be gleamed from the events that took place?

UK Prime Minster Boris Johnson

A predictably eventful Conservative Party Conference came to a close yesterday with what seemed like progress on Brexit. The PM, Boris Johnson, used his speech to announce his already leaked plans to solve the issue of the Irish border without the use of Theresa May’s backstop, which previously prevented hardline-brexiteers from backing her deal. But while Johnson’s language was one of conciliation and maintaining the Good Friday Agreement, as the Daily Telegraph’s Europe Editor detailed in a twitter thread, this will still involve a customs border and checks on goods in some form. As both Brussels and Ireland have ruled this out in the past, it seems unlikely that much headway has actually been made towards a Brexit deal.

Get Brexit Done

What the announcement of a new plan did for the Tories was reinforce their primary slogan of conference – Get Brexit Done. This characterises the attempt to satisfy a widespread public urge for closure after 3 years of Brexit deadlock. Pushing this idea of new plans and progress may help the government in their attempts to win over those who simply want Brexit to go away. Most of the conference united around the principle that whatever the outcome of negotiations, Brexit must happen and this government must be the ones to deliver it.

New Big Spenders?

Away from Brexit, Chancellor Sajid Javid announced a raft of new spending plans – a clear move away from the rhetoric of austerity. Promising ‘billions’ for a number of key areas of public sector policy – including hospitals, busses and road infrastructure – Javid signalled that the Conservatives have become less concerned with acting as the party of fiscal frugality.

His most eye catching pledge was his plan to raise the National Living Wage, from £8.21 an hour to £10.50 an hour by 2024. The plan also lowers the age limit at which people can receive the NLW, from 25 to 21. Some may see this as an attempt to push into Labour territory by promising spending in key, austerity hit areas but many of these proposals come with caveats and exaggerations.

Nonetheless, it shows a clear rhetoric shift, with inflated numbers in some cases only further showing that the discourse of the ‘magic money tree’ is long gone.

Elsewhere in Conference

Sexual harassment allegations in the Sunday Times from columnist Charlotte Edwards overshadowed the conference. Edwards recalled an episode at a Spectator dinner two decades ago while Johnson was editor, accusing the PM of touching her leg without consent. The story has dominated media coverage this week, along with further corruption allegations from Johnson’s time as Mayor of London. He has outright denied that any groping took place, while all of his key allies have rallied in support.

On the other side of almost left leaning spending proposals from the chancellor, is the response to these scandals that shows the current direction of the party. Johnson and Dominic Cummings, his comms chief, have calculated that by refusing to admit any wrongdoing in these cases they can keep many of their target voters on side. Theresa May was often said to be pushing for a high spending economic agenda, while also moving towards an illiberal social platform. She fell short, with her determination to pass a Brexit deal dominating her time in power.

These moves by Johnson and his team have shown that they certainly have a plan, possibly even on similar lines to May’s ill-fated grand ideas.

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