How will Boris lead in these difficult times?

1 Oct 2021

Following on from last week’s preview of the Labour Party Conference, DRD Partner, Pete Bowyer, takes a look at what might be in store for the Conservatives in Manchester next week.

What’s in store at the Conservative Party Conference?

The Conservative Party conference kicks off in Manchester on Sunday hard on the heels of Labour’s earlier this week in Brighton. There, Keir Starmer had three jobs to do. First, he had to marginalise the hard left through internal party reforms. Second, he had to introduce his own personal story to the nation at his first ever in-person conference as leader. And finally, he had to start to sketch out a plan for government to show that his party was once again more serious about power than protest.

We can leave it until another time to consider how far he accomplished each of those three tasks, but the Prime Minister’s job in Manchester next week is far simpler. For better or worse, the country knows Boris only too well. He has little internal dissent to quell, at least of the open, vitriolic nature that was all too apparent at Labour’s conference. What he does need to do, and with some urgency, is to explain how he intends to take the country forward post-Brexit and post-pandemic.

The most pressing issue, of course, is the fuel crisis. The Sun has yet to go as far as it did in 1979 when it created the apocryphal ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ headline that helped bring down Callaghan’s Labour government following the Winter of Discontent. However, there is growing unease on the Tory backbenches that the PM has yet to get a grip of the issue. The Government says it’s just a temporary supply-chain issue impacting countries all over Europe that is starting to ease anyway (Err really? – Ed) but, another week of hard pressed motorists queuing two hours for fuel in Wakefield as Conservatives quaff champagne at star studded party receptions might start to exert a political price.

The fuel crisis may well be a short term blip, but more fundamentally the Prime Minister needs to explain to the party faithful as well as the country at large what ‘levelling up’ really means and how we can achieve net zero without costing the earth, as many Conservatives fear.
Levelling Up or Levelling Down?

There are more meetings at the Conservative Party fringe on these two issues alone than you can shake a stick at, but both carry political risks. For a start no one, perhaps not even the Prime Minister himself, is entirely sure where he stands on either. As political journalist Robert Hutton has observed Boris Johnson’s arch nemesis is Boris Johnson himself who keeps tripping him up by what he has previously said.

That’s certainly true on climate change, but on levelling up the issue is more that he has never really articulated what it means at all, nor how it can be achieved without levelling down the more traditionally Tory shires. The PM has cleverly squared that particular circle, following widespread derision at his own keynote speech on the issue over the Summer, by giving it to the brainy Michael Gove to solve, newly in charge of the rebranded ‘Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’. We can expect to hear a lot more from Gove next week as he supercharges the issue, accelerating the timetable for publishing a Levelling Up White Paper that will set the Government’s domestic policy agenda for the remainder of this Parliament.

And that might not last too long, with an anticipated General Election now likely in 2023 (the fourth in just eight years). There may be good reasons to bring it forward given the state of the opposition, but that has not prevented Conservatives from worrying, primarily about what it actually means to be a Conservative nowadays.

A right of centre think tank chief reported back to me following a private dinner of Conservative MPs that he had never known them as discombobulated at the state interventionist, willy-nilly tax and spending instincts of the current Government – the “death knell of Conservativism” according to one, unnamed Minister. The closest parallel, however, may be how certain Labour MPs felt in the 1990s about the direction that Tony Blair took Labour. That did not cause his party any harm at the ballot box, and it’s unlikely to be any different for Boris Johnson.

Photo Credits: The Guardian