The Prime Ministers speech today to Conservative Party conference will unfortunately be remembered more for the incidents that befell it than its content.
First, a prankster got through security to thrust a P45 “on behalf of Boris” at Theresa May. Then, letters fell one by one off the sign behind her that proclaimed the Conservatives are “building a country that works for everyone”. Then came the cough that swallowed key parts of her script. The squirming uncertainty about whether she would make it to the end of the text inevitably seemed to echo doubts about whether the Government will survive.
That aside, the speech was earnest and sincere, clearly signaling the tone and ambition she would have liked her government to have had. She apologised for calling the general election and for a campaign that was “too scripted, too presidential” and resurrected the commitment to social justice she made on her first day from the steps of Downing Street.
On paper, the speech had elements of a strong defence of Conservative ideas and the party’s record in government. It was carefully personal, with deliberate references to her diabetes and sadness at not having children that will not, for such a reserved politician, have come lightly.
But it was sketchy on policy and in delivery. She rattled through lists of achievements and pledges without waiting for the applause delegates wanted to give – even before they realised her need for sips of water.
The constraints imposed by Brexit and the state of public finances are clear. So too is the party’s uncertainty about how to make the case for free markets and for effective regulation at the same time, even before wrapping it within a coherent vision of “compassionate Conservatism”.
What was said on….
The British dream
The British dream is out of reach for too many and she declared it was the responsibility of the Government to fix this. That could be a powerful statement, if backed up with the policies to achieve this.
The most solid contribution to that goal was arguable a new generation of institutes and a “first class technical education for the first time in the history of Britain”. She also promised 100 new free schools a year. Yet there was little detail on costs or timings. In our criticism of “policy churn” – the tendency for governments to reinvent the same policies – the Institute for Government has cited further education as a particular victim of this syndrome.
As widely trailed, the Government promised a review while it freezes maximum student fees at current levels. While this acknowledges that the proposed “market” has not worked – popular courses don’t attract higher prices – it does not offer an immediate solution.
The Prime Minister said she would ensure councils release more land and give them new powers to make sure developers carry out promised building. Again as trailed, she promised £10bn more for the Help to Buy scheme. But this scheme stimulates demand and does nothing to increase supply – yet relaxing Green Belt restrictions might be unpopular with party members. She did promise £2bn more for affordable housing and more council housing but the scale, funding and degree of local control were not clear enough to know whether this is deliverable.
In one of the new nuggets of the speech, she proposed a price cap as “an end to rip-off energy prices once and for all”. Whether this catches the public imagination will depend on how tightly the cap is set, but the plan may prove awkward for energy regulation. Companies claim that a cap will deter investment. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in a hard-hitting review last year made specific recommendations to protect customers, increase the regulator’s powers and force transparency on the companies. The risk is that the proposed price cap is cruder and fails to achieve the benefits the CMA sought.
‘Don’t break what’s working’ was the gist of her support for current tax policy towards business and innovation and her attacks on Labour for their proposals to heavily tax business. However, there was nothing on tax evasion or the difficulty of levying corporation tax on hyper-mobile companies, a concern for those aiming to devise coherent tax policy.
Grenfell and public inquiries
There will be a new Independent Public Advocate to give a voice to those most affected by such tragedies, she said. The Institute for Government is looking at what makes public inquiries successful. Her proposed advocate may give victims the voice they want – the question is whether that voice is a superficial device which does little to answer the deep desire for “justice to be done”.
Public spending and debt
This should have been one of her strongest points against Labour. In Jeremy Corbyn’s party conference speech, he seemed uninhibited by concerns about the national finances. As Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the Commons, said at the Institute for Government, notions of intergenerational fairness argue strongly against saddling future generations with debt – yet she did not drive that point home hard. The funding sources for some of the Prime Minister’s proposals were themselves unclear. As the Institute for Government’s Performance Tracker analysis will show later this month, certain public services are now under considerable strain after years of successfully accommodating budget constraints.
Other than giving a name check to Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, for her election success and frustrating a second independence referendum, the Prime Minister said nothing about what Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland might expect from her agenda or from Brexit.
The Prime Minister asserted that Cabinet unity existed for obvious reasons which may be met with scepticism. Her rhetoric to European Union citizens in the UK, telling them “you are welcome”, will not have hurt in trying to nudge the Brussels talks on further. But the greater obstacles to the talks lie in the disagreements over the Irish border and the size of the exit bill.
Free markets with good regulation. Hard work and discipline with compassion. These are nuanced messages which are a complicated sell even when the party is in full confidence.
The policies she announced today, while clearly part of a coherent whole, are piecemeal answers to bigger problems, and the detail and cost of how they might be taken forward remain largely unclear.