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This year’s conservative party conference took place under unideal circumstances for the government. On what should be a useful moment in the year for party management and unity, the government went into conference after weeks of bad headlines as a result of tax rises, the Northern Ireland Protocol, and global supply chain chaos disproportionately impacting the UK compared to other EU countries. The PM’s refusal to rule out further tax increases in an interview with Andrew Marr would also have gone down like a lead balloon with traditional ‘blue wall’ Conservative MPs. That being said, it was reported that Johnson was seen on the Conference floor far more often than Kier Starmer appeared at the Labour Conference.

Prime minister Boris Johnson began this year’s conservative party conference by offering his party, and by extension through national media coverage, the rest of the UK, a choice between what his conservative government offers and what the labour party offers. In his keynote speech, we saw a very similar framing – higher wages under his conservative government or a high immigration, low skilled, low wages economy under a labour government. Many pundits are reporting that this will be a key message of the conservatives come the next election.

The Chancellor vs the PM

On Monday, chancellor Rishi Sunak addressed conference to say his piece on the UK’s post-COVID recovery, which struck a far more reserved, austere and cautious tone than what the Prime Minister was selling. Mr Sunak has been facing pressure over recent weeks from all sides of the party. Fiscal conservatives have been speaking up over inflation and tax rises while moderate conservatives have been voicing opinions about the £20 universal credit cut. Meanwhile, ‘red-wall’ tory MPs are pressing the government to release its white paper detailing levelling-up priorities, while a separate faction of the party is asking whether it should even happen at all given the added pressure the policy programme would add to the public purse. This speech, as with all chancellor speeches, was an opportunity to balance those competing views.

Optimism was tactically sprinkled throughout the speech, seasoning it like an intricate recipe where too much or too little could fail either way. For example, the chancellor promised to ‘make Britain the most exciting place on the planet’. Reinforcing the UK government’s commitment to research and development, he announced the creation of two thousand elite Artificial Intelligence (AI) apprenticeships for disadvantaged young people.

However, despite some exciting announcements, what is likely to have substantive cut-through with UK voters was the chancellor’s refusal to rule out further council tax and income tax rises to pay for social care and other back-logs created by the pandemic. In an economy where consumers are already constrained by inflation, impending national insurance hikes and potentially higher interest rates, strategists at CCHQ may well be scratching their heads at what further austerity may have on the Torie’s electoral chances. A ConHome poll released on Monday showed the conservative’s support in red wall seats dipping by 7 points to now be on par with labour – which would result in the loss of 32 seats in that region of the country at an election.

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson delivered the conference’s keynote speech. The overall reception of this conservative conference was that addresses by cabinet ministers have been severely lacking in imaginative policy announcements. This was the PM’s opportunity to remedy this. Predictably, the PM seized this opportunity to hammer home the conservative party’s newfound strategy of ‘levelling-up’ to a higher wages and higher skills economy. In direct contrast to the overall tone of his chancellor’s address, the Prime Minister couldn’t resist weaving some optimistic ‘anti-woke’, ‘anti-cancel-culture’ populism through his speech that spoke more to his ‘red-wall’ 2019 supporters than traditional conservative voters.

More specifically the prime minister used his platform to say that his government is going to ‘get social care done’. He also argued that his government will improve transport links, make the housing market more accessible, and make the UK’s energy more self-sufficient and upskill young people across the country. In what could frustrate his red-wall supporters, he also dedicated a proportion of his speech to environmentalism and the upcoming COP26 summit in Glasgow.

Eyes now look to the autumn sending review on the 27th October. Prime ministers and chancellors have often clashed with one another on public spending, and Boris Johnson will be keen to avoid those public displays of disaffection. We will likely see much wrangling and negotiating between the two heavyweights behind the scenes, with the chancellor looking to tighten the purse-strings and the PM looking to move forward on his 2019 election policy programme of levelling-up areas of post-industrial decline.


In his speech to conference, Brexit minister Lord Frost issued a threat to the EU that the UK is prepared to trigger Article 16 unless the EU agrees to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol. This speech was presumably intended to excite the party’s now brexit leaning base, aiming to energise the conference in the run-up to more senior addresses. However, with a recent poll showing 53% of the public thinking that Brexit is not going well, it is probably clear why Lord Frost delivered such a brief speech at the Conference.

New shiny department?

September’s dramatic reshuffle saw the creation of a brand new Department for Levelling-up, Housing and Communities. At its helm is conservative stalwart and brexit crusader Michael Gove – who will lead the cross-government effort to deliver the PM’s levelling-up ambitions for the country. In his speech to conference on Monday, Mr Gove put some meat on the bones of the government’s levelling-up agenda. He argued that levelling-up is about ‘local leadership, improving living standards and enhancing a sense of local pride’.

With this programme of delivering now competing with a chancellor driven by balancing the books, is the UK likely to see a more watered-down version of levelling-up? The big question many are asking is how will it be paid for and more broadly, what are the specifics that make separate levelling-up from most government’s policies of general improvement? Focus now looks to the levelling-up white paper due for publication later this year for those details.

So – was the conference a success? 

To your everyday voter looking at the labour Party conference and the conservative party conference, it is probably very easy to observe which party is more united. While Kier Starmer was heckled during his speech to his party, the prime minister received cheers and jeers for his. Through this lens, the Tories had a clear win throughout conference season this year.

But when you dig deeper, will voters find the PM’s gleeful tone amid high inflation, shortages across the economy and brexit not working for the UK public as reassuring or completely out of touch with the national sentiment? Will the PM’s videos of him making food-related puns such as ‘build back butter, build back batter and build back bitter’ while consuming toast, fish and chips and ale as the country faces a cost of living crisis seem repellent to business and agriculture groups protesting against government policy this week? Only polling will tell. What is certain, however, is that one would be forgiven for thinking the PM’s speech was made by a labour leader. Higher wages, higher taxes, and higher spending has often been the call of the leader of the labour party in the United Kingdom, whereas this week we heard this message from a conservative Prime Minister preaching a more equal economic system.

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