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A world away from Westminster for the Tories

Despite the recent re-shuffle giving the Government a shot in the arm, the weeks leading up to conference had been bruising for the Conservatives, with a fuel crisis, labour shortages and discontent in some quarters over cuts to Universal Credit.

And yet… walking through the conference hall in Manchester gave the impression that all was rosy, and this wasn’t a government grappling with a myriad of logistical crises. Insulated in the secure zone, conference gave the Tories the chance to set the parameters of conversations and talk about their favoured topics (‘levelling up’ being a particular focus of numerous fringe events throughout).

The only real disquiet we picked up was around taxation and spending. The Chancellor only really has until later this month to develop a compelling answer to these concerns, otherwise he could face some more public opposition from the libertarian wing of the party.

Levelling up remains by and large a mystery

Prior to conference, Michael Gove gave an interview to The Sun where he began to flesh out ‘Levelling Up’ – a term previously falling into the catch-all space of ‘making things better’. The update, and specifics on what a levelled up ‘left behind’ region would look like, have begun to put some meat on the conceptual bones.

Still, levelling up remains ill-defined, and crucially so do the policy areas that will truly drive the improvements behind levelling up. A General Election is still a way off, but the longer the concept remains undefined, the nervier Red Wall MPs – whose chances of being re-elected will hang on the delivery of levelling up – will get. They will want shovels and spades in the ground in their constituencies soon to show progress – which makes it all the more curious that following what appears to be strong anticipation a Northern Powerhouse Rail announcement was coming down the tracks at conference, nothing came of it.

The high wage debate could be the next Whitehall scuffle the Government doesn’t need

Johnson has staked the current HGV driver crisis on an argument that this bump in the road is just that – a slightly uncomfortable but inevitable end point of not having cheap, European labour on tap. The PM has argued it’s now industry’s job to ensure professions such as HGV driving see greater investment, with higher wages central to that.

This ties in to wider briefings prior to conference on a potential national minimum wage increase – signalling a Government focused on transitioning to a high-wage economy. Undoubtedly, there are numerous supporters of this focus – who doesn’t want their constituents to earn more? – but, as with so many liberal twists on conservatism at the heart of ‘Johnsonism’, the Conservatives’ Pretorian guard simply don’t like this approach to economics. Not only does this create a problem for business but, more importantly, it increases the risk of inflation.

There was clear tension on the matter around bars and restaurants circling the conference centre – with one MP decrying how hard it was to find an “actual Conservative” in the current government. It may well be that as we return to Westminster, the Government could be sleepwalking into another fight with their traditional base.

A good conference for Starmer?

Overall, Keir Starmer won’t be displeased with how conference went. Yes, the speech may have been a bit loquacious, Rayner’s Tory ‘scum’ reference stole headlines unnecessarily and Andy McDonald resigned in an embarrassing and unprecedented twist. In many ways, however, the leadership election rule changes and McDonald’s resignation helped Starmer paint a clear line between his rule and Corbyn’s. But this conference was always about Starmer speaking to members and cementing his profile within the party.

Starmer’s keynote address to conference further underlined the divide with the previous path of the party, celebrating the successes of the last Labour Government – a departure from the tenure of Corbyn. It may not have hugely endeared him to the post-2015 membership wave, but it showcased Starmer as his own man working toward becoming the next Labour Prime Minister. And with Rachel Reeves putting in a strong performance in her speech and at the fringe event circuit, it seems he may finally have the bullish Shadow Chancellor he hoped for to take on the Tories.

Although watch out for the King of the North

Despite all this though, Starmer would do well to pay attention to Andy Burnham over his shoulder in the coming months and years. The Mayor of Greater Manchester’s ubiquitous presence at conference – including what seemed like a record number of fringe appearances – followed by the Sunday shows in the run-up to the Conservative Conference startled some of Starmer’s team and has only added to the feeling within the party that Burnham is waiting in the wings to pounce.

Burnham, for his part, has dismissed claims he’s not all in on Team Keir, but has also rather brazenly said he wants the job… one day. One of Starmer’s key failures previously was to land blows on Johnson that truly stuck and cut through to the public – if such a trend continues post-conference season, one suspects Burnham will be more than happy to do the knocking himself, but from the position of Leader of the Opposition.

by Josh Lambkin, Partner