Rob Smith reports back on the week in Birmingham

After a brief interlude due to the pandemic, the stage was set for one of the most unpredictable Conservative Party conferences for some time. Though they rarely change a party’s fortunes, they do give us a flavour of their aspirations over the coming year; but what exactly did we learn?  

It was certainly an interesting lesson in communication and message discipline or, rather, how not to do it. As the wine poured late into the evening, it was somewhat surprising to hear the newly appointed Leader of the House, Penny Mordaunt, declare “our policies are right, but our comms is s**t”.”  It was certainly a bold statement from the former leadership hopeful, but was she right?  

Getting Britain Moving?

It’s always difficult for a political party to hit the reset button whilst still in office, especially one that has been in power in one shape or form for twelve and half years, so it was somewhat surprising that the Tories opted for ‘Getting Britain Moving’. Whereas this may have worked in the twilight days of the last Labour government, one can’t help but wonder what the party has been doing for the last twelve and half years? Ironically though, despite serving under all three of the last Conservative Prime Ministers, the Tories’ new Disrupter-in-Chief, Liz Truss, has managed to portray herself as the change candidate, pledging to end the economic status quo and causing just a little disruption in the process. A more appropriate slogan might have been ‘Keeping Britain Moving’ but, given that the conference was plagued by striking rail workers and many delegates leaving early to avoid the travel chaos, it would have been somewhat ironic for Prime Minister Truss to address the party faithful under this banner, when Britain was hardly moving. 

What did we learn about planning, regeneration and levelling up?

In short, very little, or at least nothing that we hadn’t heard before. The newly appointed Housing Secretary, Simon Clarke, suffers from agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces, so opted to address the party faithful via video link reaffirming the government’s commitment to investment zones.  

Elsewhere, the Business Secretary Jacob Rees Mogg announced that Nottinghamshire County Council had won their bid to secure a site for the first-of-a-kind Nuclear fusion plant. The government had shortlisted five sites but chose the West Burton A plant in Nottinghamshire. Cascade previously helped position the site to be chosen to be the UK’s first and potentially the world’s, first prototype commercial nuclear fusion reactor. 

On the fringes, a number of events were dedicated to discussions around home ownership and housebuilding. Although nothing new was announced, Lee Rowley, Minster for Housing, appeared at a number of events and reportedly told Inside Housing that the government is committed to scrapping the 300,000 annual new homes target with further details due in the coming weeks. I was particularly surprised to see the excitement around the government’s new flagship investment zone proposals with a number of councillors lobbying Clarke’s new Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Dehenna Davison, to consider their individual bids, but as to be expected, the minister kept her cards close to her chest.  

Earlier in the week, Liz Truss was forced into a somewhat embarrassing U-turn over the government’s controversial plans to axe the 45p tax rate. Whilst we can argue about the merits or consequences of the policy and subsequent climbdown, one can’t help but ask that if a PM with a majority of around 70 is unable to reduce the higher rate of tax to what it was under the entirety of the Blair government and the majority of the last Labour government, can she really push through serious planning reforms, that will get Britain building? If developers and housebuilders came to conference looking for clarity and direction, they would have left slightly underwhelmed. 

Is it all over?

Fundamentally, governments tend to lose elections before the opposition can win them. Whilst it didn’t exactly strike me that the party believes it is on the brink of winning a fifth consecutive election, politics moves quickly, and it would be unwise of me to try and make any such predictions. The general mood could only be described as ‘a bit flat’ with many senior MPs choosing to stay away. Truss clearly has a fight on her hands to reassure many former Sunak backers that her bold vision for the country will lead the party into another election victory. We have already seen hints of a breakdown in collective responsibility within cabinet with some pushing for benefits to rise in line with inflation, something Truss appears more sceptical about. It was certainly a risky move consigning her opponents to the backbenchers, but the PM can be reassured that there are plenty of activists that would rather she was given a chance to prove her sceptics wrong.