The upending of domestic politics: What next for the Conservative party and its policy agenda?

The upending of domestic politics: What next for the Conservative party and its policy agenda? By Tomos Davies, Director and former Conservative Special Adviser

If we have learnt anything from this pandemic, it’s that the Coronavirus doesn’t discriminate against national borders or any individual – least of all our political leaders.

And just as the pandemic has challenged long-held social conventions and societal norms, so too it has driven a horse and carriage through long-held political shibboleths and orthodoxies.  A Conservative Prime Minister who won a general election in part by attacking Labour’s spending plans and impulse for big Government is now advocating the same ‘Tory tonic’ to an economy teetering on the brink. And when Boris Johnson observed in a press-conference before his untimely hospitalisation that there was “such a thing as a society”, in an apparent rebuke of his Tory heroine, surely there could have been no starker illustration of how far the tectonic political plates had shifted.

Yet despite the political hyperbole around how our politics may never be the same again, on many levels, our politics may not feel or look all that different. In keeping with the stoicism of the British people, the Government is determined to convey a sense of ‘business as usual’ as much as possible.

‘Levelling up’ the economy will continue to be the Government’s central policy-focus   

Following the 2008 financial crash, it was the North of England which suffered the greatest economic hardship. As with then, it will be those same post-industrial former Labour heartlands which will disproportionately suffer the economic consequences of this pandemic. With that in mind, the Conservative leadership will be determined to abide by its electoral promises and to be seen to be doing good by those who placed their electoral trust in Boris Johnson at last December’s general election.

Understandably, the Government’s ‘levelling up agenda’ has got a whole lot harder. No longer flush with cash having kept most of the economy on life support, Treasury ministers and officials will be eager to identify quick and easy wins that can be delivered in the short to medium term. We can anticipate that Government will focus its efforts on unlocking ready to go projects, though this may come at the expense of longer-term strategic investment, including airport expansion and HS2 – the benefits of which won’t be felt here and now.  Businesses will have a key role to play in signposting Government investment.

Less, not more Government, will be the favoured policy prescription    

Whilst individual liberty and free markets may be the biggest short-term casualties of this pandemic, we should not assume these central tenants of Conservatism will be substituted by any long-term embracing of big Government and state intervention.

Attention will soon turn to the post-crisis recovery, and specifically, to the political and economic levers which need to be pulled to turbo-charge UK plc. This is where British businesses, whether large or small, have a key role to play in communicating their policy asks, with Government intervention likely to focus on regulatory easements and a bonfire of bureaucracy, to make life for business across the country just that little bit more manageable.  If your business is not already thinking along these lines, get your wish lists ready now.

Foreign investment will come under renewed scrutiny, with Government eager to “Back British”

Finally, it seems inevitable that the Government will adopt a more sceptical posture towards foreign, and specifically Chinese, investment in the UK. Conservative lawmakers are already calling for China’s ‘day of reckoning’ following its alleged cover-up of the scale of the pandemic. We can anticipate renewed political scrutiny of Chinese involvement in key aspects of the economy, including the technology and national security sectors.

The long-term corollary of this will be a renewed push to bang the drum for UK businesses and to back the best of British manufacturing, hospitality and producers. Nail your colours accordingly with your communications.

This article forms part of a wider collection of articles on ‘What next for public affairs in a post-COVID world?’ from FleishmanHillard Fishburn’s award-winning public affairs team