Boris Builds Back

By Stuart Pilcher

After 11 years in government, four General Elections, three Prime Ministers, two referenda and one global pandemic, the Tory Party gathered in Manchester for their annual conference with one question on their mind: What do we stand for?

Looking to put a chaotic pandemic-fuelled 19 months behind them, in which the UK Government spent billions of pounds to prop up the economy, stabilise the jobs market and ensure that everyone vaccinated, Boris Johnson and his Cabinet have decided that it’s time to set out plans as to how the UK will look and operate moving forward. And it is clear that Johnson sees an opportunity to reshape post-Brexit and post-COVID Britain in his own image – and it is a complete departure from his predecessor’s version of conservatism.

With Tory members and MPs feeling jittery about the forthcoming national insurance hike, risk of rampant inflation and fuel shortages combined with the squeeze on living standards, Johnson and his band of merry speechwriters delivered an address designed to remind them why they fell in love with him all those years ago. He threw some red meat to the party faithful inside the room, whilst also giving more than just a wink to his new voters watching at home. It was, of course, those new voters that in 2019 gave him the largest Conservative majority since the height of Margaret Thatcher’s power.

Let’s row back a bit though. The Conservatives are deeply aware of the fragility of their coalition of voters. From the middle-class, well-heeled voters of the shires, to the ‘Labour Leavers’ of the Midlands and North – all have different priorities and needs. We saw how difficult a balancing act it is to keep both sets of voters happy – just look at the repudiation of the party in by-election in the Tory heartland of Chesham and Amersham earlier in the Summer.

What does bring these groups of voters together, however, is Boris’s unrelenting positivity. Boris the guy who gets it and the one who can get it done even if, for the most part, we don’t quite understand why.  Policies don’t need to be immediately fleshed out – as long as the PM’s delivery stays on song, they sound like they actually might help Build Back Better or Level Up. The devil is usually in the detail – so why bother with the bad bits?

This was the same with the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. He used his speech earlier in the week to introduce himself as a conviction politician – one that understands how hard the pandemic has been on ordinary people, without giving any details on what was to come in the Spending Review later this month. Sunak has always been one to watch – but watch his popularity slip as he goes from doling out the cash to the man who tells you to tighten your belt.

So, if there weren’t many policies, let’s look at the rhetoric. The Prime Minister, during the Vote Leave campaign, is reported to have said “f*ck business” when confronted with a number of concerns about leaving the EU from leaders across the business world. Whilst he didn’t go that far as to repeat those words this week, he’s certainly not interested in industries and businesses that do not subscribe to the adoption of his new economic model – moving from a low wage, low growth economy to a high wage, highly skilled post-Brexit UK. Moving the economic strength of London and South East and rebalancing it with those parts further north.

If I may say, your writer is possibly less cynical about this ploy than your regular social media commentator. Could it be that No. 10 has decided that London and parts of the South East are moving away from the Party at such a pace that this geographical realignment of politics is not only real, but lasting? What was pleasing to see, however, was the embracing of green jobs and a greener economy across the country as we steam towards COP26 in Glasgow.

However, when we have a lack of policy, we prefer to think about perception. Conference had its usual fun off of the main stage. Atticus was party to some of this, meeting the Prime Minister at the Sunbelt Rentals UK stand, which would go on to win stand of the conference, and watching as the PM took one of their e-bikes for an impromptu spin around the exhibition hall, much to the concerns of his security detail. The PM, also climbing into a Sunbelt digger, was splashed across the news on Tuesday, proving once again that he has an eye for the spotlight and a way to promote his agenda of building back better.

This Conference will hardly move the needle. In fact, I highly doubt that the Tories wanted to make too much of a splash this week. They don’t need to. But at some point, as Labour gets its act together after a successful Conference in Brighton, the Tories will have to answer the exam question: what do we stand for? And they can’t just say “To win”.

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