Conservative Party conference presents a moment for a vision for new Britain

Boris Johnson's conference goals are to focus on 'levelling up' and green jobs

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's renowned optimism will face a severe test at the Conservative Party conference. Getty Images
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Earlier this year, things looked pretty rosy for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson -- Britain’s vaccination programme was surging, the economy was bouncing back and trade deals were delivering his Global Britain agenda.

Amid an unfolding supply crisis, Mr Johnson now finds himself surveying a grim landscape of a country short of fuel, of people to work in vital services and on confidence that the future is as “nailed on” as he proclaims.

The Conservative Party annual conference starts on Sunday, in northern English city Manchester and Mr Johnson's trademark optimism will face an important test.

As his Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng outlined on Friday, Mr Johnson is a leader at a generational pivot point in which the economy is being restructured away from a high-immigration model.

With Brexit – the UK's departure from the EU – Britain has seen the flow of workers from the EU greatly reduced, a development only now playing out across the country.

“We need a clear-headed post-Covid plan and a recognition that economically times are going to get tougher and that the Brexit chickens are coming home to roost because we couldn’t even handle a fuel crisis,” a senior Conservative told The National.

A shortage of drivers has led to empty fuel pumps and retailers are warning of a bleak Christmas unless the flow of labour from Europe is restored.

Mr Johnson will therefore want to lay out a course that puts the batterings of Covid and Brexit firmly aside and one in which Britain sets course for “a brighter economic uplands".

The positives are that there is little dissent within the Tory party and with an 80-seat majority Mr Johnson can push much of his agenda unchallenged through Parliament.

Furthermore, the growth forecasts are relatively positive, allowing for a few financial giveaways, says the Centre for Policy Studies, a think tank close to Tory thinking.

“There will be a focus on the post-pandemic recovery vision, paying most attention to ‘levelling up’ and the drive to net zero,” said James Heywood from the London think tank.

“I suspect there'll also be a big focus on the green economy of the future, green jobs and opportunities.”

The key to conference will be showing that there’s a clear plan to get Britain back on track, said defence committee chairman Tobias Ellwood.

“The party wants reassurance and a demonstrable plan to get people back in their jobs and manage the transition out of furlough,” Mr Ellwood said.

“Because people are still very tense, I think the nation is still highly charged because we have not had a period of calm for a long time. The Prime Minister will want to show that he is in control.”

The recent Cabinet reshuffle has demonstrated that control, but what will Mr Johnson's agenda be?

“Levelling up, the green agenda and the union,” said one Conservative analyst.

“But first he really needs to explain what levelling up means because if they leave it too long then the Labour Party comes into that space it will start landing some blows and setting out their own alternative vision of levelling up.”

“Levelling up” involves increasing prosperity in poorer parts of the country, many of which are in the north of England.

The motivation is simple: votes. The traditional Labour northern seats that voted Conservative in 2019 gave Mr Johnson the huge majority he wants to retain. Empowering the often neglected north could also help Britain as a whole, he believes.

“But levelling up can't just be about government pushing money to different places,” said Mr Heywood. “There needs to be a focus on the role of industry in the private sector, as well a drive for jobs to create sustainable prosperity in parts of the country.”

Prosperity and poverty will increasingly come into focus.

The poorest are going to feel the brunt of a £20 a week cut to Universal Credit benefit, rising energy costs, a National Insurance tax increase and the end of furlough.

In the past week, it was reported that Britain had a shortfall of 100,000 lorry drivers. The meat industry has now warned it needs 10,000 trained butchers.

If Mr Johnson can sell his vision, he might convince people that the shortages present opportunities.

“He’s going to be very focused on the opportunities presented by Brexit,” said the Tory insider.

“He will say to business, pay people a little bit more, and train them skills here at home. And I suspect that line is very popular with the British public.”

Mr Kwarteng laid some groundwork for the conference by attacking businesses that have kept wages low through cheap immigrant labour, a model that has kept British productivity low.

“Having rejected the low-wage, high-immigration model, we were always going to try to transition to something else [after Brexit],” he told ConservativeHome website.

He added that people had voted for Brexit because employers had benefited “from an influx of labour that could keep wages low”.

“I think this is a transition period,” he explained. “As economists would describe, between equilibrium A and equilibrium B there’s always going to be a transition period.”

Mr Johnson might do well to announce a top-level crisis team to confront labour and skills shortages, a suggestion made by the Confederation of British Industry. “This is now a major threat to our recovery, and the government needs to step up its response to a new level of both speed and boldness,” said Tony Danker, the CBI director general.

There is another requirement for firm, decisive leadership. The Labour Party had a solid if unremarkable conference, but with one key achievement.

It effectively killed-off the far-left wing of former leader Jeremy Corbyn wing, making Labour a far more plausible option to form a government.

“Labour have rightly noticed that there's a there's an easy hit to use against us when it comes to people's household finances and putting money in people's pockets,” the senior Conservative said. “That’s a vulnerability that the Prime Minister needs to address.”

Veteran Tory observer Tim Bale agrees that Mr Johnson, while having a skill at getting out of scrapes, now needs to be watchful.

“When it comes to people's household bills and shortages in the shops, it's rather harder to portray that things are going to be fine,” said the professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

The return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, amid the chaotic withdrawal of western powers, will also be a reminder that foreign policy is fragile and that “Global Britain” is currently an aspiration.

“We need to reinvigorate that appetite to step forward as a global power,” said Mr Ellwood.

“We have a number of existing fires around the world that still need to be put out from Palestine to Kashmir, Yemen, Libya and Mali.

“What happens in the next few years will determine what happens over the next few decades potentially the century, because China is getting bolder and more confident by the day.”

The keynote speech on Wednesday will no doubt be filled with Mr Johnson’s usual optimism, bluster, charm and humour, enchanting the Conservative faithful.

But what about those first-timers who voted Tory for Brexit’s rewards?

“The government needs to deliver on some of the benefits it promised, especially for former Labour voters,” said Mr Bale. “Their relationship with the Conservative party is pretty transactional. The party has to come up with the goods.”

Mr Johnson might indeed park some of the banter and jokes, recognising that there are economic wastelands and well as prosperous uplands in the post-pandemic, post-Brexit world.

Updated: October 02, 2021, 4:00 AM