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In the aftermath of the Labour Party Conference, one thing is clear about what the Conservatives are going to be aiming to offer: huge helpings of competence.

You’d be forgiven for missing it buried between Shadow Cabinet resignations, Deputy Leader rants and other controversies, but that was the key attack levied at the Prime Minister by Sir Keir Starmer – that he is not a serious leader for serious times. Without a strong conference narrative to refute this, it has the potential to pick up momentum in a way that will be far from helpful.

Build Back Better – Getting on with the Job

You can already see that the Government is, quite rightly, working to address this with the slogan daubed all over Conservative Conference branding.

‘Build Back Better’ was recently given a turbo boost after a reshuffle that saw Michael Gove head up the new Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Department together with key lieutenant Neil O’Brien. Expect large, concrete announcements from the main stage with master orator Gove not only firing up the grassroots, but serving sizeable helpings of policy definition to the oft criticised Levelling Up agenda. Red meat for the red wall is sure to be delivered to reinforce this headline policy priority.

‘Getting on with the Job’ clearly seeks to address that central attack: that there’s so much spiralling out of control, is the Government asleep at the wheel? Strong media performers Truss, Sunak, Zahawi and others will be deployed on stage and screen to bang the drum with evidenced competence throughout various crises. Trade deal successes, surprising economic stability, record vaccine delivery and more will all be cited repeatedly to provide tangible case studies to reinforce their competent credentials.

But there are other significant issues circling that the Government needs to be firm on throughout conference:

A Cost of Living Crisis?

When the everyday is affected, people who may not otherwise care much about politics start to look for someone to blame. The slowly resolving fuel crisis fits firmly into that category. At one point two-thirds of the nation’s forecourts were closed, causing car queues as far as the eye could see. Whether it was whipped up by press and social media speculation, or a result of the well-known HGV driver shortage, situations such as these lead people to more readily accept the extreme, to cut less slack than they would otherwise. This has already started to be seen with regular comments backed up by supermarket chains asking: will we have enough food in the fridge for Christmas?

Combined with the NICs rise, the reversal of the temporary Universal Credit uplift and the ending of furlough – there is a danger this could snowball into a test of empathy as well as competence.

How the Conservatives rise to this double-challenge will be key to whether their Conference can be considered a success.

Crime and Justice

With the verdict from the Sarah Everard case this past week, there will continue to be significant pressure on the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and others to deliver concrete guarantees to ensure this doesn’t happen again. It’s in this area that the real test of empathy comes in. Can substantial enough reforms be delivered so that critics are sated that this is not only something that the Government is taking serious action on, but that it understands the truly emotive core of the fears being eloquently expressed by so many women up and down the country.

This is a tough balance to strike – to get the process changes needed delivered at pace to demonstrate a firm grip; expressed firmly and sensitively enough to make it clear that they really do get why it’s necessary.

‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ for 2021 needs an addition: ‘prioritising care for the victims.’

The election could be less than 20 months away

The Comprehensive Spending Review, an incoming Budget and other staples of the political cycle are all hurtling towards us. Everything that is announced at conference, either from the main stage podium, through fringe events or the press, should be viewed through the prism of rolling the pitch ahead of a possible early election which (whilst unlikely) could come as early as 2023.

It’s therefore worth paying attention to the movements and messaging coming from the new cohort of junior Ministers that were brought in at the reshuffle. We saw clearly at Labour Conference that theirs is a party far from united, so a key test for the Conservatives will be how backbenchers demonstrate cohesion throughout the conference – especially when discussing some of the tough challenges facing the party and the Government.

Oh, and there’s still a pandemic to worry about

Booster jabs are being deployed, flu season will soon be upon us, and while Covid-19 may have receded into the background, overtaken by too many other temporarily relevant issues, it will return to the top of the news agenda as winter descends.

The roll out of booster jabs, the ongoing discussion about vaccinating young people, and the inevitable rise in infections will (primed by the fuel shortage) start to create real fear among the populace.

A strong performance, concrete policies delivered with empathy will be what’s needed – and that’s what the Prime Minister will likely seek to achieve in his conference closing speech on Wednesday.

Competence with Empathy

The Prime Minister is a Happy Warrior, but a Warrior nevertheless. To neutralise the Labour attack that he isn’t serious he will deploy his unique bulldog spirit style with the leadership quality that we saw repeatedly in those early Covid broadcasts: seriousness.

If Boris Johnson can rally the party faithful, and confound critics to deliver a strong, concrete performance grounded in empathy – then the Conservatives will leave their Conference rejuvenated, but with sleeves rolled up for some very challenging months ahead.

Mario Creatura is a Director at DGA Interel UK and former Special Adviser in 10 Downing Street