Returning from four days in Manchester, Ben Stetson takes a look at what this year’s Conservative Conference means for the future of the Party, Government and the business relations?
This year’s Conservative Party Conference was always going to involve some deep soul searching. In the wake of one of the most disappointing election results for the party in post-war Britain, the mood was never likely to be as buoyant as the previous foray up north in 2015. Alas, the mood in Manchester was certainly glum.
Beyond the internecine fighting brought about by the Prime Minister’s speech, the Conservative Party felt like last season’s cloth. Many Tory MPs were not even in attendance and of the ones that were an all too familiar selection appeared at every fringe event. Bringing energy to the conference centre was a perpetual challenge.
The endless demonising of Corbyn did not serve the Party’s best interests. It feels as though it is their last remaining source of leverage, but more from a point of insecurity than a point of strength. So much so, many of the party faithful have genuinely begun contending with the reality of a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Government.
It became clear that, of the current generation of high profile Conservatives, two were pitching for the soul of the party: Bojo and Ruth. Boris Johnson spent his days in Manchester attempting to galvanise the spirit he whipped up during the EU referendum campaign. Arriving to a fanfare on Sunday night, he did the rounds for four days steering clear of control by the party machine. All the while, the Scottish leader of the party, Ruth Davidson, offered a safe haven to many liberal Conservatives, searching for a progressive force in British politics.
Of course, Moggmentum motored on and adulating fans chased his tail across Manchester, while Michael Gove reminded journalists, members and the public alike he is alive and kicking. Liam Fox gave his loyal supporters a treat on Sunday night. At a late hazy reception in the Midland Hotel, he delivered a rousing defence of his Department’s role of delivering Global Britain touting signed trade deals at minutes past midnight in March 2019. This was duly followed by an impromptu, and rather bizarre, rendition of the God Save the Queen – only at Tory Conference.
There were also a few bright stars twinkling on the fringes. The likes of Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat, for example, did no damage to their future prospects as potential leaders.
The Prime Minister and Chancellor led the Party’s fierce defence of the market economy – May decried that the Party must “win this argument for a new generation and defend free and open markets with all our might”. However, there was an omission that the economy must change if it is to bring greater prosperity. The desire for change that manifested itself through the Brexit vote and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn leaves no doubt the goalposts have shifted on the debate around the economy.
As expected, Brexit remained the hot topic of conversation at Conference. There was an obvious exhaustion of extracting as much positivity from the situation as possible but we should not be fooled into believing that the cracks have been sealed over. It is becoming increasingly clear that it can only be a younger generation, not plagued by decades of infighting around Europe, that can carry the party forward.
From a business perspective there were three main takeaways. Firstly, the door to Government remains open: ideas and policies are being invited and encouraged more than ever. The Department for International Trade is running countless trade missions across the globe; the Treasury is engaged in extensive consultation with the financial services sector and the Department for Exiting the European Union is welcoming businesses to Chevening for weekend retreats to exchange views to inform the Brexit negotiations.
Second, business’ have the opportunity to shape the future direction of the UK’s society. The Government is looking to industry for resource as they seek to adapt to life outside the European Union. And this goes beyond the outlook for the economy: the onus is on business to help the Government reshape society in response to the yearning for reform. Proactively presenting new opportunities to Government will cement relationships in Westminster and Whitehall.
Thirdly, and most poignantly for many businesses, it is time start taking the Opposition seriously. This is not necessarily in preparation for a future Labour Government, but because Corbyn’s team have begun opening up to the idea of engaging with the business community. With the party becoming increasingly influential in public and media debate the days of a one sided conversation with the Government and Conservative Party are over.
All in all, it’s clear the swirling undercurrents and infighting are chipping away at the Tories’ grip on power. The analysis and commentary pouring out of Conference will concentrate on the PM’s future. The real lesson here for those engaged in the political sphere in the UK is that party Conference still matters. Critics of the annual backslapping brigade have been reminded that a poor performance in front of the membership can still contribute to downfall. It took a month after Iain Duncan Smith’s infamous ‘Quiet Man’ speech at the 2003 conference for him to be ousted. We will report back in a month on the putsch that has begun.