Over the weekend, the Times reported that Downing Street is “bruised” by the failure of Rishi Sunak’s party conference announcements to shift the dial with the public. “Rishi has failed to do a bold enough reset”, was one minister’s analysis.
It’s a curious use of the word enough, given that the headline announcements in Manchester were some tinkering with high-school qualifications and cancelling a railway. I wrote elsewhere about the gulf between the Prime Minister’s rhetoric and the reality of his policy positions.
But amidst all the rumours about whether or not Jeremy Hunt will keep his job, it is at least an analysis which puts policy front and centre ahead of the King’s Speech, the next (and perhaps last) opportunity Sunak will get to put some meat on the bones of his self-image as a man of action, prepared to take unpopular decisions in the long-term interests of the country.
As it stands, word is that the Speech is currently rather thin. But there are three areas which should serve as useful markers for how bold, and in what direction, the Government plans on being. Those are, in no particular order: nutrient neutrality rules, the ban on trans conversion therapy, and the Renters Reform Bill.
All are controversial, and action or inaction on any will divide the party in different ways. And the Government has been visibly swithering on all three. Reform of nutrient neutrality rules – which have allowed quangos to all but freeze housebuilding – was good and important, until it was dropped. Michael Gove is delaying new regulations for renters. The conversion therapy ban was off, then someone briefed it was on, now it seems to be off again.
Set aside for a moment whether or not you or I agree with the specifics of any of these policies and treat them instead as three lights on a dashboard, red or green.
An all-red showing, representing the purest defensive crouch, would surely be no rent reform, no new nutrient rules, no ban – stasis in the name of not upsetting anybody.
Obviously inaction is itself a positive choice and some people will be upset regardless. But if, as reported, CCHQ’s strategy is to focus on holding existing Conservative supporters and staving off the alleged threat posed by Reform UK, no sudden moves to spook flighty voters would seem the most likely order of the day.
(Your mileage may vary on whether or not waiting for your voters to come back is a viable plan for closing a 20-point polling gap, but the Party seems to believe it.)
All green, on the other hand, would suggest the Prime Minister is actually changing tack, gambling on a risky play to break out of his current, deeply unfavourable position and fight a war of manoeuvre in the year before the election. It would also increase his odds of leaving a tangible legacy, if he doesn’t feel that box was ticked with his cigarette ban.
If it’s a mix, that would say something interesting about Downing Street’s assessment of the terrain. A conversion therapy ban a break with the likes of Miriam Cates and the New Conservatives and a bone thrown to the party’s progressive wing; nutrient neutrality reform would be a nod to the increasingly-vocal planning reform movement.
Pressing ahead with the Renters Reform Bill would also be an acknowledgement of the critical importance of housing as an electoral issue. In contrast to nutrient neutrality reform, the chosen policy option would then be palliative rather than curative. But that would still be better than pumping in even more demand, which the Chancellor is reportedly considering.
But given that housing didn’t warrant a mention in Sunak’s speech in Manchester, it feels fairly unlikely he’d be suddenly up for spending much political capital on it a few weeks later.