The order in which speeches are scheduled can sometimes tell you something about Government policy. This afternoon’s speeches in the hall of the Conservative Party conference consisted of those from the Secretaries of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Environment, Food and Rural Affair; Transport; and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – four departments which lead on British creativity, business and the infrastructure and policy needed to support it.
The main themes in the hall were creating prosperity for all (especially the Northern Powerhouse), productivity and infrastructure.
While Greg Clark’s and Chris Grayling’s speeches were complementary, the speech by environment secretary Michael Gove had his personality stamped all over it. Significant amounts of it were dedicated to Brexit, for example: “Whether its fisheries or farming, bin collections or VAT rates, controlling our borders or improving animal welfare, EU law currently binds our hands. But we will be free of those handcuffs by the time of the next election.” His latter point, ‘by the next election’ was notable, because clearly no end date has been set for a transition period – only that it may be two years.
Gove also talked about the pledge he made on “ending the sale of new diesel and petrol cars from 2040”, and then – saying the word “leadership” twice in as many sentences – said how this had resulted in car companies offering their own scrappage schemes. While there was nothing wholly new in this speech; perhaps this story was more about Michael Gove.
The next two acts on the stage were more complementary, and focused largely on productivity, infrastructure and its place in the industrial strategy.
Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, opened by talking about the Government’s investments infrastructure. These were not grand projects, but the small, quickly realisable infrastructure that Philip Hammond supported as means to boost the economy around Brexit – for example, link roads and new rail connection, with an announcement worth about £100m for road schemes in the north of England as well as investment for smart ticketing across the whole rail network.
He then concluded by talking about the bigger infrastructure the Government continues to support; including Heathrow expansion (which he said he expects to be given the go-ahead in the first part of next year) as well as Crossrail 2 and HS2.
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Greg Clark started his speech by talking about Britain’s success in keeping unemployment low, but also flagged the country’s issues with productivity.
He attributed this to poor provision of education and training and certain parts of the country being left behind while others become more prosperous. The industrial strategy, he said, was about people and creating prosperity for all.
The Government, he said would continue supporting efforts to make Britain the “go to place” for battery technology, including through their Faraday Challenge, and highlighted how the costs of offshore wind generation had halved in their recent round of CfD auctions.
Clark closed with two requests to industry – first on improving corporate governance standards and second on sector deals – saying if business can prove they will invest and improve lives, then Government will shake hands on a deal.
These sessions highlighted both what unites and divides the Conservative Party. While there may be personalities to content with, the industrial strategy, Northern Powerhouse, devolution and infrastructure has given it a sense of purpose. The challenge for the Conservative Party is whether there are too many personalities and – like Michael Gove and Brexit – these could drown out their positive words on productivity and shared prosperity.