The BoJo Show
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. The accompanying image – taken by yours truly on Monday evening – should leave you in no doubt as to the Party faithful’s affections for Boris. This is despite a challenging few weeks for the PM, including serious allegations on the eve of Conference about his behaviour when editing The Spectator. The conventional wisdom is that this is ‘priced in’ with Boris. That he has weathered so many storms in his career – what’s one more? Time will tell if voters are as willing to turn a blind eye to personal indiscretions as Party members.
Make no mistake – the Tories wanted this Conference to be an election rally and they succeeded. Activists are briefed, energised and ready to take the fight to Labour et al. However, this stage management left little room for policy substance, with only slogans to fill the vacuum. This is consistent with the rumours of a very short manifesto at the forthcoming General Election; effectively committing to ‘Get Brexit Done’ and little else. After the 2017 General Election, Sir Lynton Crosby told me this was his advice to Theresa May’s team. This clarity of message was overruled by Nick Timothy, sensing an opportunity to spell out in great detail how they would tackle thorny issues like social care due to a 20-point lead in the polls. It is unlikely the Party will make this mistake again.
Of the substantive discussions that did take place, there seems to be a genuine, renewed focus on the Northern Powerhouse agenda – with funding to match. Boris, Jake Berry and Robert Jenrick all namechecked Northern Powerhouse Rail as a key priority. The business community, however, seems to want more. One prominent outgoing Chief Executive (with links to George Osborne) told me that the debate on transport has been won. The next frontier is Devolution 2.0 and how to supercharge regional industrial strategies. The whispers about a ‘One Yorkshire’ deal still persist. As a proud Yorkshireman, I personally have my doubts that areas as diverse as Hull, Harrogate and Huddersfield will ever come together under one banner. A beefed-up West Yorkshire Combined Authority is a more likely prospect.
On housing and planning, you could be fooled into thinking a raft of policies were announced if you weren’t listening carefully. In reality, it was a case of announcements about future announcements. A Green Paper in November will look at further reforms to speed up the planning process. The headline-grabbing National Design Code is an interesting idea and builds on Policy Exchange’s good work around building beautifully to improve public support for new developments. However, it does not address the vast supply side issues which restrict housing delivery. It will also require every LPA to pursue their own Design Code – which will require significant consultation and resources. Even with increased fees for planning applications, this is likely burden overstretched planning departments and slow down the already glacial Local Plan process.
And yet, members and activists will leave happy. The PM’s closing speech was the distillation of his own personal appeal; the blond bombshell centre stage, thriving on bravado and bonhomie as he promises to deliver Brexit. My view remains that if – and this is far from certain – we leave the EU on 31st October then Boris will win a majority. What happens then? This week offered clues but nothing concrete. One thing is certain. The BoJo Show remains essential viewing.
Tom Martin, Director