Chris White is Co-head of Advocacy at SEC Newgate UK, and is a former special adviser to three Cabinet Ministers.
This year’s conference season is over, so there is a chance to reflect on their impact, both on the electorate and on forthcoming legislation in the final session of Parliament.
In a year’s time the British public will be heading to the voting booths, deciding if Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives really do embody the change that he tried to portray during his conference address. That speech was one of three big moments, other than the King’s Speech and the Budget, before the next election, and a chance for the Conservative message to be on every news broadcast and in every newspaper.
The Prime Minister had one of the hardest tasks in politics – trying to present himself as the change candidate to the electorate, despite being the leader of a party that has been in power for 13 years. He went for the big bang approach, announcing four key policies – the scrapping of HS2 north of Birmingham and diverting the money to local transport projects, a long-term NHS workforce plan, a lifetime ban on smoking for those under 15, and reforming A levels.
Taken at face value, each of these policies have a long-term impact, and in a normal political cycle you would expect the messages trailed at conference to be used again in the King’s Speech, with a set of Bills introduced to implement the policies. Reviewing Sunak’s conference speech, it’s questionable how much can be implemented ahead of the next election, let alone what might need legislation in the upcoming King’s Speech and maximising that second ‘big impact’ mentioned above.
Reforming A levels to deliver ‘parity of esteem’ has long been a goal of ministers, and the additional funding for retention payments in shortage subjects makes a lot of sense. However, papers released by the government after the speech suggested the timeline was at least a decade away, and it’s unlikely that the policies would be anywhere near ready to be introduced in a Bill in November.
The same is true of the Prime Minister’s long term NHS workforce plan. It may well end up doubling the number of students to become doctors and nurses, with the aim of reducing the hiring of staff from abroad or paying temporary agency workers huge fees. However, with details light at this stage, it’s hard to see whether this would even need legislation. Most likely, it would be done instead by ministerial direction from the Department of Health.
The Prime Minister did pledge legislation to raise the smoking age by one year every year, with the aim of preventing anyone aged 14 from ever buying a cigarette, echoing the introduction of a similar policy in New Zealand. This will be subject to a free vote in Parliament, meaning each MP or peer can vote according to their conscience, rather than the party whip.
Finally, HS2 north of Birmingham was cancelled, something foretold for weeks following the leaking of a photograph of an uncovered briefing document carried by an incautious civil servant outside Downing Street. In its place, every penny saved from cancelling HS2 was promised to deliver hundreds of projects across the North. The High Speed Rail (Crewe to Manchester) Bill is currently going through Parliament as a hybrid Bill, and will clearly end up scrapped.
This disparate group of measures will therefore require little legislative time in the upcoming King’s Speech, which perhaps reflects the fact that with the Speech happening on 7th November, there will be little actual time for legislation in the final session of Parliament in any case. While rumours of an election in May have been firmly quashed, with a vote in November 2024 most likely, this hardly helps the government squeeze more legislation in.
There are likely to be only two weeks of legislative time available to the government from the end of July 2024 – during the September sittings – meaning the King’s Speech will be much thinner than a normal session. If the Government tries to cram more in, it risks losing whole chunks of Bills, as happened during the final dregs of the 2009-10 session just before the general election.
The power in this situation is firmly in the hands of the Opposition. While we can expect other legislation not trailed in the PM’s conference speech, Conservative MPs will want to spend the majority of their time in their constituencies, where every vote will count on whether they will return to Parliament in 2025.
The Prime Minister’s conference speech was an attempt to portray the Conservative party differently, setting out how it will address the long-term challenges facing the country, and create clear blue water with Labour. However, the conference slogan – ‘Long term decisions for a brighter future’ – fell flat, despite a clear attempt by Downing Street to echo the Cameron era ‘Long-Term Economic Plan.
That slogan may not have been popular, but it was a coherent message that the party and the country could unite behind, with clear dividing lines between Conservatives and Labour. Echoing the Bill Clinton mantra, these were repeated again and again, until voters could barely escape hearing it.
Yes, the Prime Minister’s speech revealed a group of policies that may individually poll well, and are certainly long-term, but collectively they were disjointed, and hardly amounted to a coherent plan.
Ministers were also sent out on the airwaves to promote a series of minor wedge issues, from the ‘meat tax’, to 15-minute cities, a clutch of baffling ‘policies’ that no-one had ever heard of, nor indeed is likely to in the weeks afterwards.
Instead of clarity, party activists came away from Manchester having seen a fresh slogan, and a fresh set of policies, but uncertain exactly what the party stands for.