Conservative Conference 2021 What did we learn?

Thursday, 7th October 2021

Update from Lexington

Here are five thoughts from Manchester at the conclusion of the second in-person Conference Boris Johnson has hosted as Prime Minister…

First — despite a certain amount of enthusiasm by the faithful — Conference just wasn’t quite as busy as usual. Lobby journalists repeated rumours that the number of delegates was way down against normal levels; a reduction measured in the thousands. Conference season isn’t about to become a wholesale casualty of Covid, but it’s also true that things are some way from being back to normal. Even the time-honoured protests were smaller. In fact, the organisers constructed a smaller auditorium for all but one of the speeches (the PM’s) to avoid too many pictures of Ministers addressing an emptyish hall.

Second, these few days were almost a holiday from some of the risky political choices the government is making this year. The speeches have been light on policy, No 10 say deliberately so. It really hasn’t been long since the PM took on a difficult tax rise in order to increase NHS and social care funding (though he made a virtue of it in the hall) and in a few weeks the Treasury will deliver a combined Budget and Spending Review that determines departmental spending limits for the next three years. None of those decisions are easy. Claire Coutinho MP, the Chancellor’s PPS, said at the Lexington conference dinner that Budget will be a deliberately technical exercise this year, with few new measures, precisely because of the tax decisions already taken, and because the CSR needs to take centre stage. (And while we’re talking about tricky politics, David Frost using his speech to highlight the unsustainably of the Northern Ireland protocol shows that settled implementation of the Brexit deal is very much yet to be achieved).

Third, the PM’s personal position is genuinely commanding over his party. Last time Tory members were together in person, he had no deal with the EU, no practical route to an election, no majority and not much more authority. All of that has changed, from Boris’ position much for the better. His aides talk about what good form their boss is on — for now at least, with good reason. 

Fourth, Downing Street are quietly pleased by how it’s all gone off. They draw a contrast with infighting over rule changes that took up several days for Labour in Brighton, and feel as though some of the few policy announcements they have made landed pretty well — justice policy, for example, and a much-needed review of Met Police internal practice. It’s also worth remembering just how new some Cabinet ministers are in their briefs — so to have passed without too much evidence of that comes as a relief to the people who chose to conduct a reshuffle not even a month ago.

The fifth point is perhaps my most important one. We knew that a political realignment is taking place, but the extent of the government’s ambition was firmly underlined this week. The PM is trying pretty brazenly to play Labour off the park. To see a Tory PM making a point of higher spending and taxation to increase investment in public services, and dismissing worries about an inflationary economy by trying to align himself with wage growth is audacious stuff. It also leaves the Conservatives vulnerable in the run up to Christmas to ongoing disruption given the stresses on supply chains. Boris Johnson has never been a politician afraid to gamble, but he used this week to raise the stakes on his attempt to squeeze Labour’s political room to operate. We won’t see the ultimate wisdom of that attempt for some time to come