Read our daily updates from the Lansons Public Affairs Team at the Conservative Party Conference….
The Arrival of Boris
For some, anticipation has been building all week for the moment Boris Johnson arrives at conference to deliver his latest round of criticism for the Prime Minister’s Chequers Plan. Like him or not, he carries a star following in the membership, and that shows with the queues that will form wherever he goes to speak today.
The media have tried to set a narrative that his arrival puts a cat among the pigeons, and to some extent that’s true. Virtually every interview with a senior minister has included a line of questioning about his views. The difference this time is that there’s very little dissent within the cabinet, so internal briefing is really at a minimum. As well, many of the old guard backbenchers are going around saying there’s no appetite for a putsch against the PM, and so his attacks fall somewhat short of the mark, those who might have supported him having followed him out of Government when the Chequers Plan was announced.
Consequently, Theresa May is not facing questions about her leadership at this conference; instead focus has been much more on the likelihood of her plan getting through Parliament. There are, naturally, as many views on this topic as there are delegates.
Media stunts are Boris’ natural territory, and the appearance of him in a field of ‘wheat’ in many of today’s newspapers will do everything to get him coverage and nothing to undermine the view that he’s very good at big show criticism and not so good on solutions.
Boris clearly wants to use this time to position himself as the party’s next leader, and if it were up to the membership alone he would sail through. Behind the scenes however, he needs to do more to reassure parliamentary colleagues, for many of whom he has peaked, annoying them by not demonstrating unity when it is most needed. Without those MPs on side, he won’t get through the early stages of the ballot. Despite this, there’s no immediate obvious challenger to his position, though the Tory Reform Group is doing its best to position itself as the ‘anyone but Boris’ camp. Admittance to their reception this week in Birmingham was ‘one-in-one-out’ owing to the number who wanted to attend. Perhaps, when the time comes, there’s hope of a contest after all.
Philip Hammond’s Speech
This was the phrase utilised by Boris Johnson earlier in the year as he set out his stall on the Brexit negotiations and the concerns that a no-deal scenario would have on UK businesses. Yesterday at conference, Philip Hammond aimed to reset the relationship, once again making the Conservative Party the traditional ‘Party of business’.
Launching an attack on the “illusory utopia” of a prospective Labour Government and the policies set out last week by his opposite number, John McDonnell. The Chancellor gave a measured yet confident speech which emphasised the cautious nature of his time in the role.
Only two new policies were launched, a packet of measures aimed at boosting the Apprenticeship Levy, which has come under heavy criticism lately, and reforms to help productivity across SMEs. The policies include:
- An extra £90m enabling employers to invest a quarter of their apprenticeship funds on people working for businesses in their supply chain – boosting the number able to benefit from high-quality apprenticeship training.
- A further £5m for the ‘Institute for Apprenticeships’ to introduce new standards and update existing ones so that more courses can be offered – meaning more choice for those considering their training options.
- £20m will be invested in networks to enable SMEs to learn from world-leading firms, including: GSK, Amazon, KPMG and Siemens.
- A further £11m will pay for a training programme that will build management skills lacking in many SMEs. This will help 2,000 businesses in its first year, with an ambition to train 10,000 people per year by 2025.
There was also a note of warning to online firms for not doing enough to get their houses in order, despite repeated warnings from Government. The findings of a Treasury policy paper are due to be announced this Autumn – perhaps ahead of the Budget – on the merits of a new Revenue Tax, to help level the playing field between online firms, and the high street. One to keep an eye on.
Finally, and snuck in to the bottom of the policy announcements, was the announcement of a new independent study, led by the National Infrastructure Commission, on the telecoms, energy and water regulators. Stated as a way to “ensure [regulators] have the ability to encourage investment, promote competition and innovation and meet the needs of consumers in the 21st Century”.
No doubt included to combat the argument for large scale nationalisation advocated by Labour.
There was also a snippet on the Budget (29th October) with fiscal Phil saying “…be in no doubt I will maintain enough fiscal firepower to support our economy [in-light of a no deal Brexit]”. All in all, don’t expect fiscal fireworks this October.
What’s On Today
On the third day of Conservative Party Conference, tension between the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson is expected to intensify, as the latter makes what is being dubbed an “alternative leader’s speech” to a Conservative Home fringe event at 1pm. The former Foreign Secretary is expected to call for the Government to “chuck Chequers”, before urging party members to “believe in Conservative values” in order to defeat Labour. Johnson is also predicted to announce his support for tax cuts in the UK post-Brexit, while Politico has reported his advisors have instructed event organisers to make the appearance look “prime ministerial”.
In response, the Prime Minister has decided to unveil a key post-Brexit immigration policy originally devised to be included in her leader’s speech tomorrow. Under May’s plans, European workers will be treated in a different manner from those coming from other parts of the world after 2021, while EU tourists and business travellers will be able to travel without difficulty, but long-term residents and workers will require VISAs. The proposals, intended to please party members and steal press coverage from Johnson, will be supported by a full round of media appearances by May, including a slot on the Today programme. The policy will also be proclaimed by Home Secretary Sajid Javid in a speech at noon: It remains to be seen whether the policy will divert sufficient attention from Johnson to avert embarrassment from the Prime Minister.
In other, more low-key developments, Jacob Rees-Mogg will speak to the Telegraph’s Christopher Hope at 12:30pm, while DCMS Secretary Jeremy Wright will speak on the regulation of the internet this evening, following Philip Hammond’s suggestion yesterday he would act to tax “digital giants” such as Amazon and Google.
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