Five conclusions from the Conservative Party Conference
What happened at the Conservative Party Conference?
I’ve been watching the Conservative Party Conference closely this week. These are my five big conclusions:
1. The Conservatives have made a U-turn on their austerity agenda. This is BIG. The new Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, has announced that the government is now willing to borrow to invest and boost growth. He didn’t say much about public spending cuts, so we will have to wait to see the details in his Autumn Statement in November. While he was careful to say that the government was still committed to lowering public spending, he was vague about the circumstances in which they would return to Osborne’s defining policy.
Neither the media nor the Labour Shadow Cabinet have made enough of this dramatic shift in policy given that austerity was a central plank of the Conservative’s manifesto. Remember also that Osborne threatened more, not less, austerity if the public were to vote for Brexit. Many high profile economists have been saying that public spending cuts are a mistake so it’s good to see the Conservatives finally changing tact. However, Hammond’s U-turn is a reminder that austerity was always a choice.
2. Brexit means Brexit Theresa May has made very clear, very often, that “Brexit means Brexit”. That was reiterated in her speech today and by many of her ministers this week. We now know that Article 50 will be triggered by the end of March next year, and that the next parliamentary session will see the European Communities Act (the Act giving EU law authority in the UK) repealed. For now, the Great Repeal Act will adopt all of the EU Laws, so won’t repeal anything. Points for great PR.
The arrows are increasingly pointing to a hard Brexit, meaning a fundamental change in the UK’s economic relationship with the EU. The market reacted badly, with a new 31-year low for the UK pound against the US dollar. Although there were further claims that the government will make a success of Brexit, Chancellor Phillip Hammond conceded in his speech that the economy may be turbulent through negotiations, and Theresa May has accepted in interviews this week that there would be bumps along the way.
3. Theresa May’s key pledge is to address inequality. Theresa May’s impressive speech at the end of the conference included more on her aims to tackle inequality. I’ve written before about May’s particular brand of inequality, pointing out that her stance fits with a ‘pull your socks up, work hard and get ahead’ mantra. This individualistic approach fits with her push for grammar schools – a policy that is clearly at odds with addressing unfair life chances. However, she did make some positive noises about tackling tax avoidance and challenging vested interests, including energy prices. Sound familiar? It should do, so much of her rhetoric today resonates with what Ed Miliband was saying in the lead up to 2015 General Election.
Not too long ago, even Labour politicians sneered at the issue of inequality, now it is the main game in town. Just take a look at these three statements from May, Corbyn and Miliband: “Our economy should work for everyone, but if your pay has stagnated for several years in a row and fixed items of spending keep going up, it doesn’t feel like it’s working for you.” (May, 2016) “We need an economy that works for every part of this country so that no community is left behind.” (Corbyn, 2016) “Prosperity in one part of Britain, amongst a small elite. A circle that is closed to most, blind to the concerns of people. Sending the message to everyone but a few: you’re on your own. See, think about it for a minute. In our economy, it’s working people who are made to bear the burden of anxiety, precariousness and insecurity.” (Miliband, 2014)
4. The Conservatives are taking an even tougher stance on immigration. May has emphasised again that immigration reform is a priority in Brexit negotiations, stating that, “We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration all over again”. Home Secretary Amber Rudd also focused very much on immigration in her speech, with more pledges to bring down net migration to the tens of thousands and the announcement of a review looking into other ways to reduce immigration.
Rudd gave us a better idea of which immigrants are good and which are bad. Unfortunately for our NHS, even foreign doctors were on the hit list and it was briefly suggested that businesses would be asked to publish lists of the proportion of foreign workers – luckily this was quickly dismissed as part of a consultation after a backlash. Other announcements, such as more training to get Brits into work, should be welcomed. However, when these steps are linked to an ‘immigrants taking our jobs’ rhetoric, the UK continues down the slippery xenophobia slope.
5. The Conservatives love irony. There was many jaw dropping ironic statements made by Theresa May and others during the week. The corkers include:
- The motto of the week ‘a country that works for everyone’ was particularly jarring given the regressive impacts of public spending cuts which have meant the poorest, women and people of colour have been further left behind since the Conservatives entered government in 2010.
- May’s statement that “workers’ rights [will be] protected and enhanced by a Conservative government” – completely at odds with the draconian Trade Union Act, which aims to restrict the hard won right to strike among other things.
- May claiming affinity with Clement Attlee, the Labour PM who set up the NHS - “Attlee, with the vision to build a great national institution...” - and other attempts to argue that the Tories are the party of the NHS while battling with junior doctors and allowing waiting lists to grow.
- May: “the Government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the rich and powerful, but by the interests of ordinary, working class people.” Almost half of Conservative MPs went to Private school, compared with 7% of the country as a whole and 17% of Labour MPs.
Despite the U-turn, hypocrisy and irony, one can’t help but notice how calm, cool and collected the Conservatives and the new Prime Minister were this week. The question is, how long before the gap between rhetoric and reality becomes too big to paper over with spin?