As the dust settles on Birmingham this evening following Conservative Party Conference 2016 – Theresa May’s first as Prime Minister – many tired party activists, journalists, and politicians will be reflecting on their conference experience.
This conference was pre-destined to be all about Brexit – and based on the number of conversations in fringes, as well as in the hotel bar, that centered on it there is no doubt that others will feel the same. It was difficult to find a fringe event that didn’t have ‘Brexit’ included in the title, and even in those that didn’t, the conversation invariably returned to its implications for the sector in question. Another phrase used frequently in meetings, which also lacked a clear definition, was ‘industrial strategy’ and its importance in ensuring that this new government is able to deliver domestic reform in conjunction with Brexit.
The focus on an industrial strategy – a phrase Sajid Javid distanced himself from whilst BIS Secretary – was a constant throughout most events. Greg Clark, newly appointed Secretary of State for what is now Business, Energy and Industrial Stategy spoke at a number of events on the issue. Other key themes of conference included: reclaiming the centre ground from the Labour party – as mentioned by the Prime Minister in her speech – and housebuilding, following the announcement of a £3bn fund.
Although the rhetoric played-up the importance of delivering a strong domestic agenda, many key speeches were policy free – notably. Greg Clark’s and Philip Hammond’s. One could say that this was to be expected as the first day of conference marked the 100th day since the vote to leave the EU. Tight-lipped speeches, light on policy, therefore suggest that big changes may be coming, instead, in the Autumn Statement. Many were quick to forget that it had been intended to reveal the government’s plans for grammar schools at conference but leaked papers forced the Prime Minister’s hand.
The airwaves were full of the combined opportunities that Brexit and the demise of the Labour Party bring for the Conservatives and that this places the party in pole position to win the 2020 General Election. The feeling of self-assuredness was palpable, that regardless of what could go wrong for the Conservatives between now and 2020 Corbyn’s ‘unelectability’ will in the end act as insulation. As a result the Government is provided with the freedom to experiment with domestic policy, should they wish to expend political capital on policy areas other than just Brexit. With a new Policy Board in place, chaired by George Freeman MP, government is listening to businesses proposals. Greg Clark MP also cited the importance of business and other stakeholders in drafting the solutions to today’s problems – a framework that led to local devolution deals, under his leadership.
Conference was also an opportunity for the recently-selected Conservative Mayoral Candidate for Birmingham, Andy Street, to set out his vision and at the same time to promote the devolution agenda. Expect to hear more on this ahead of the election in May 2017 and the role devolution will play in the wider industrial strategy. It is clear that the rebalancing of wealth and opportunity, tied to the industrial strategy, will shy away where possible from a top-down national approach.
Overall, apart from debates surrounding Brexit, conference was fairly subdued. The Conservative Party will be happy with how well-controlled the Conference was with Brexit messaging being adhered to and no-one going rogue, especially Boris, at least in public. With the date of triggering Article 50 out of the way on day one of Conference, and little in between, we look forward to the detail on domestic policy reform that is undoubtedly to come in November’s Autumn Statement.