By Tomos Davies – Director, Public Affairs.
The Conservative Party Conference, like so many aspects of daily life, was quite a different affair this year.
Few public affairs practitioners will have mourned the tedium of attending the 8am fringe event, the customary rabble-rousing from the main conference hall or the warm (and cheap!) white wine.
And whilst this year’s affair was devoid of the political theatre of previous conferences, the adulating Tory faithful and inevitable media scrum which accompanies the Prime Minister, it was nevertheless a key political test for Boris Johnson and an opportunity to reassert his leadership and authority after a challenging and restless few months within the party.
In his keynote address to this year’s virtual Conservative Party Conference, only his second such speech as party leader, the Prime Minister showed flashes of the Boris of old, with an upbeat and optimistic vision of a post-covid Britain and his customary rhetorical flourishes.
He promised to use the pandemic as a “trigger” for change, including turning “Generation Rent into Generation Buy” as he looked to fix the housing crisis with new state-backed mortgages to help young people onto the housing ladder. In a nod to his oft-forgotten One Nation and centrist impulses, he confidently affirmed that offshore wind power would be powering every home in the country within a decade as the UK became to wind power what Saudi Arabia was to oil.
And perhaps in a further sign of the political influence of the new Blue Wall of Conservative MPs, who are thought to be encouraging the Prime Minister to wade into the culture wars of recent months, Johnson confidently proclaimed that he would lead a Britain that is “proud of our culture and history and unashamed of our heritage”, but which also was “unblinking about the present, embracing every person with love and respect, whatever their race or creed or gender or orientation.”
Following yesterday’s love-bombing by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister reciprocated in kind by lavishing his own praise on the Chancellor for doing things that no Conservative Chancellor would want to do except in times of war. But corporate Britain will no doubt have taken note of the apparent ‘clear blue water’ between the Downing Street neighbours. Whilst Sunak pledged to use the “overwhelming might” of the state, Johnson, in an apparent rebuke of his Chancellor, proudly proclaimed “the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it.” In an apparent shot across the bow to Treasury mandarins, the PM talked of “becoming more competitive both in tax and regulation” after weeks of speculation that Sunak might use his now delayed Budget to review capital gains and corporation tax contributions.
Even without the assembled party faithful hanging off his every word, there was no shortage of partisan point-scoring, with Johnson cruelly mocking Sir Keir Starmer as “Captain Hindsight” and landing some blows on Labour’s continued prevarication on prospects of the UK re-joining the EU in future. With the battle for the Union also set for centre stage next year, the Prime Minister effectively savaged the Labour leader for “flirting with separatists” in a line which will reverberate beyond the virtual Conference hall with Scottish, and indeed Welsh, voters ahead of next year’s critical devolved elections.
If times were different Johnson would, of course, have addressed the party faithful as the all-conquering hero, basking in the glory of having won an 80-seat majority at last year’s general election and getting Brexit done. With some signs of grumblings over his leadership amongst Conservative backbenchers and a restless parliamentary party eager to get on with delivering its election manifesto and to restore the support of its new electoral coalition, the Prime Minister will hope that today’s Conservative Party Conference speech will have reminded his detractors that he remains the Conservative Party’s greatest electoral asset and that he, like them, is as impatient to implement an ambitious domestic policy agenda.
Will today’s performance be enough to satisfy his political detractors? Only time will tell. But those who underestimate Boris, do so at their peril.
Whilst some backbench MPs are no doubt spooked by the modest, though not insignificant, polling inroads made by Labour under Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership, the political fundamentals remain unchanged. The Conservatives, despite their recent wobbles, continue to poll at around 40 percent, with the next election some years away. Ahead of 2024, Johnson and the Conservatives will no doubt hope to have emerged from the covid pandemic and presided over an enduring economic recovery, secured a comprehensive trade deal with both the EU and possibly the US, ploughed record sums of investment into the Red Wall as part of its ambitious levelling-up agenda, unleashed a housing and green energy boon, as well as seen off the separatists’ threat in Scotland and made further inroads into Labour’s last remaining fiefdom at next year’s Welsh Senedd elections.
If the Conservatives can achieve the above, BoJo will once again have all the political mojo, and the idle leadership speculation of recent weeks will soon be a thing of the past. That would be some platform to seek a historic re-election, which, by the end of the next parliament would see Boris trump Mrs Thatcher and John Major’s 18-years of uninterrupted Conservative rule.
For a statesman steeped in Greek and Roman statecraft, even Boris must be tempted to look beyond his recent trials and tribulations and the ‘bumpy winter’ that lies ahead for the country, and to dream of one day securing his own place in the pantheon of political leaders. Per angusta ad augusta.