The Conservative conference was a mix of post-election party reunion and post-pandemic rebranding. But in terms of what the government is doing to ‘build back better’ or ‘level up’, five days of speeches, interviews and fringe events left many more questions than answers.
Unlike the Labour gathering in Brighton, the conference in Manchester placed little emphasis on new policy. Speeches tended to focus on reciting past achievements, repeating ideas already announced and setting out grand but still ill-defined visions. Levelling up was everywhere – reflecting its vague but ubiquitous nature.
Outside the conference bubble, the fuel shortage crisis continued, gas bills rose and the Universal Credit uplift was cut. While this did little to impact the celebratory mood in Manchester, the government is likely to come under increasing pressure about how it will go about tackling these urgent issues.
For the prime minister the conference was about cementing his ascendency in the party. His speech, delivered at high-speed, bursting with optimism and peppered with jokes, hit the classic Johnson notes but was light on new announcements. There was, however, an attempt to sell a deliberate shift to a new economic model for the UK, with the supply chain problems described by Johnson as a temporary consequence of the government’s post-Brexit ambition of tighter labour markets and higher wages. The prime minister’s arguments won cheers in the hall – but saw a backlash from business and economists alike.
But this was a conference which centered on the personality – and popularity, in the party at least – of the prime minister. Even from the room it was delivered in – a wholly separate one from the smaller hall in which his ministers had addressed often half-full rooms – seemed designed to deliver the stage management on which his predecessor had so awkwardly failed. The party faithful were buoyed and Johnson’s ministerial team enjoyed watching a leader so at ease on the main stage. How successfully his conference is remembered, however, will depend greatly on whether the optimism translates into policy – both to respond to the short-term pressure points and also to deliver longer-term visions.
With a Spending Review imminent, we can expect to see more detail on how the government intends to reconcile chancellor Rishi Sunak’s emphasis on restoring public finances with Johnson’s desire to tackle ‘the biggest underlying issues of our economy and society’.
Forty-one fringe events – including two of our own – had ‘levelling up’ in their titles. Boris Johnson mentioned it 18 times in his speech to party members. But we still came away from the conference foggy about what the government really wants to achieve.
Johnson’s speech identified a vast range of inequities that he wants to address – from healthy life expectancy to educational attainment, crime rates to lack of physical and digital infrastructure. Michael Gove added other targets to the list – improving the quality of public services, living standards in general, people’s pride in where they live, and strengthening local leadership.
Across the conference, there were passionate rallying cries from political leaders in the North about the need to address historic injustices that have favoured the South. But Conservative political leaders from the South East warned that ministers would be foolhardy to ignore their areas altogether because Conservative support was in danger of softening in the traditional Tory heartlands. As a number of speakers rightly pointed out, there are deprived areas and people right across the UK – not just outside London and the South East.
But while the speeches were long on ambition, they were short on policy detail. Most of the problems Johnson has identified have long been recognized and successive governments have made their own attempts to deal with them – from Tony Blair’s pledge on “education, education, education” to George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse and Theresa May’s Midlands Engine. Michael Gove’s desire to “raise living standards” is one that no-one is likely to object to – but slow progress on that front in recent years has not been for want of trying.
Some at conference argued that the vague, all-encompassing nature of the levelling up term is a strength, but mobilizing the power of the state to tackle the array of thorny issues will require more than just a slogan. With delivering on levelling up requiring action across numerous departments and all tiers of government, the forthcoming levelling up white paper will need to provide much greater detail on the objectives if the might of government is to be deployed effectively.
If prevention and resilience were the buzzwords of the Labour conference, then efficiency and reform were the Conservative equivalents. The health fringes featured much discussion of the growing number of people waiting for care, and how to make the most out of the additional money going to health service. As Paul Bristow, a member of the health and social care committee, put it to our Institute for Government fringe event, “the public won’t forgive a government that puts up taxes and fails to get bang for buck in return”. Sajid Javid’s leaked proposal that NHS leaders could be fired for failing to cut waiting times – and his promise that 2022 will be a “year of reform” – should be interpreted in this light. While setting clear targets could help – and did help reduce waiting times in the 2000s – the fundamental constraint is capacity which performance management alone will not remedy.
Looking beyond the NHS, the conference was policy light. Other than a salary boost for early career maths, physics, and computing teachers – itself very similar to the last year’s cancelled retention payments scheme – there were few new announcements. Discussion of social care and schools catch-up were notably absent, despite the summer row. How the government’s public services ambitions connect to levelling up is still unclear. The upcoming spending review, where the government will set out its spending plans over the rest of the parliament, is likely to give a clearer direction about this government’s ambitions.
No fewer than 31 fringe events had Net Zero in their title, and the need for it was (largely) not in question. There was much concern, though, about how to pay for changes – especially in people’s homes. MPs and party members raised fears about the impact green policies would have on poorer households, benefits only going to the well off, and consumers being ripped off by dodgy products and cowboy installers. Other events, including our own, delved into the detail of the planning reforms and regulatory changes needed to accelerate progress.
But for all the discussion on the fringe, there was precious little policy announced in the main hall. The government’s plan for decarbonising homes, due in the summer, remains stuck in a Whitehall tussle over those costs: Lord Callanan, the BEIS minister responsible, could only restate at our panel that it would be out “shortly”. For his part Rishi Sunak, rather than staking his own claim to being Britain’s first green chancellor, failed to mention climate change at all. The prime minister did so only briefly. If there is agreement that climate change needs to be acted on, the government remains hesitant (particularly in more difficult areas) on how to do it, with world leaders set to arrive in Glasgow for COP26 in just three weeks.
The connection between net zero and levelling up – the government’s two central aims for restructuring the economy – is also yet to be articulated. Net zero enthusiasts would like to think the green transition will be a core part of the government’s economic plan, and there are plenty of local leaders calling for extra powers and resources to design and invest in the green transition (as Teesside mayor Ben Houchen, repeatedly namechecked, has done). But while “levelling up” is gaining ministerial heft and definition, it remains unclear whether net zero will also become a priority for the whole government.
The prime minister referenced “the bright future” for the UK outside the EU, and Cabinet Office minister Lord Frost spoke to a fringe event about some of the government’s ambitions, but aside from listing some of the changes already underway – such as a new agricultural regime and planned changes to rules on gene editing – there was little sign of any new post-Brexit policy announcements. It is still unclear what strategy is driving the government’s reforms.
Delegations from EU embassies were out in force but the UK-EU relationship was not a priority. Foreign secretary Liz Truss failed to name the EU as one of the UK’s key allies in her speech on the main stage – although she pointed out that she did mention the G7, at which the EU does have observer status. And where there was conversation about the relationship between the UK and the EU, the emphasis was on the benefits of bilateral relations with individual member states rather than those with Brussels.
The future of the Northern Ireland protocol (the key obstacle to a more positive relationship) dominated the few Brexit discussions. Lord Frost repeated his opposition to the protocol in its current form – and reiterated his threat to trigger article 16, which allows either the UK or the EU to unilaterally apply a brake to the protocol. He also set down a new timetable: a three-week negotiating period once the EU publishes its response to the UK’s demands, expected in the next couple of weeks. November, therefore, becomes the next crunch point.
But the UK government is yet to explain what triggering article 16 would actually look like, and what it would ultimately achieve. Having already decided to impose a ‘grace period’ on parts of the agreement that cause the most disruption to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, triggering article 16 won’t necessarily make a big difference on the ground. It may raise the temperature of the talks but, it is not a permanent solution for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland – that can only be found through UK and EU agreement.
5. Government reform ideas were overshadowed by whether civil servants should head back to the office – Alex Thomas
This was a conference more about ‘building back better’ or ‘levelling up’ than serious proposals for government reform. And where MPs and ministers did touch on the future of the civil service it was Jake Berry’s criticism of “woke-ing from home” and Oliver Dowden urging officials to “get off their Pelotons and back to their desks” that sparked the interest of delegates and reporters. The remote working arrangements of civil servants continues to draw attention out of all proportion to its importance either for the economy or the effectiveness of government.
Still, government reform featured at the fringe if you looked hard enough. Matt Warman, a minister at DCMS until the recent reshuffle, talked thoughtfully about how the government needed to do digital services differently and work harder to marry citizens’ expectations with the constraints of public sector systems, Michael Gove leant on the Treasury’s partial relocation to Darlington, boasting about the number and quality of its new recruits from the north east, as he began to put flesh on what ‘levelling up’ might mean. And Francis Maude, Nicky Morgan and Patricia Hodgson returned to familiar themes of accountability, pay, performance management and the weakness of the centre of government in a session about “reimagining government” that, perhaps playing to the conference crowd, was notably hostile to the civil service.
But even so there was less discussion about joining up government, reforming the state or working out how to use the levers of power than might be expected from a party that needs to spend the next few years showing the progress it has made in improving people’s lives. That is something for the new cabinet office minister Steve Barclay to think hard about as he heads south to swap the Manchester bubble for the Westminster one.