Much of the tone of a party conference is set by expectations, and expectation management – meaning that, after the pre-briefing, leaks, and Sunday newspaper coverage, the thousands of Conservative Party members gathering here in Manchester arrived with an already-developed idea of how Day One would go.
Today, three main factors contributed to that general feeling.
The first, news of Eric Pickles’ review of the election campaign, has already been reviewed by Paul Goodman earlier today, Reaction to Pickles’s proposals seems to be fairly positive, though I gather that there was applause at the Party Convention meeting earlier today when speakers from the floor urged greater radicalism, including the idea of a directly elected Party Chairman.
The second story in many Tories’ minds is the continued rumbling of disagreement and jockeying heard from various prominent Parliamentarians. Boris Johnson obviously set the tone for this, following up his Telegraph article with a Sun interview yesterday in which he not only set out new “red lines” for the Prime Minister on Brexit, but strayed well beyond his own brief to recommend action on pay and other issues.
The Foreign Secretary hasn’t been alone in generating headlines. Sajid Javid gave the Observer a splash by declining to answer on the future of the Prime Minister; Nicky Morgan has said Johnson has “no place in a responsible government”, et cetera, et cetera. Leaving aside the merit of these interventions, the implication about Downing Street is obvious. Number 10 lacks the authority to slap down wayward voices, and the chorus is multiplying as a result. It’s hard to see that improving.
The third factor setting the tone is how the Government itself has chosen to kick things off. They’ve bowed to expectation and tradition by indulging the need to announce something – anything – for the start of the conference. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you do need something worth announcing.
Today, the Prime Minister made three new pledges. The first two are on tuition fees, where Labour has made great (if fantastical and unaffordable) hay with a promise to abolish them entirely. It’s somewhat strange that the Government has chosen to enter combat on Corbyn’s chosen turf, but evidently they feel the need to at least get in the ring on issues that concern young people. Raising the threshold at which graduates start repaying their debt doesn’t quite justify the Sunday Telegraph‘s use of the word “revolution”, but I suspect a £360-a-year reduction in payments will be welcome to a fair few of those who will benefit from it.
Had that been the end of it, it might have been a nice little Easter egg, though hardly a gamechanger. But that wasn’t all. Bizarrely, the Government chose to pair this genuine change with a pledge not to raise tuition fees beyond £9,250 a year.
What is the effect of such a promise? No-one unhappy about fees is going to feel particularly grateful to learn that they won’t rise further, so headlines about the freeze only really serve to remind everyone of quite how much university costs already. In the newspapers, the £360-a-year saving was largely swamped by this simpler but less appealing policy.
Having discussed education, the other chosen topic was housing. That’s right and justified, given the huge concern about the supply and price of homes, but the detail of the policy leaves a lot to be desired: the Government intends to put another £10 billion into Help to Buy.
Admittedly, it’s a form of Help to Buy which eventually sees the money paid back, and which is targeted towards new-build properties, but is this really a good plan? The housing crisis is at heart a supply problem: we aren’t building enough new homes. Putting billions more into fueling the demand side will help those who receive the assistance, but otherwise will surely act to further drive up prices for everyone else.
I suppose this is a May policy which George Osborne might like, which is a rare enough thing nowadays. But aside from the Standard editor, a fair few Tories here in Manchester are less than pleased to see the Government reach for an idea which they believe is not particularly conservative and which they feel does not really address the heart of the problem.
In short, while the gathering Tory tribe is seized with a sense of the urgent task of defeating Corbynism, the first day of the conference has been somewhat underwhelming.for many of those here. The want to see new and effective Conservative ideas to get back on the front foot. Who will provide them is yet to be decided.