As the UK Political Conference season wraps up, here are our key-takeaways on one of the most substantial moments in the parliamentary calendar:
‘The lady is for turning’
According to reports, it was 7:00 PM on the evening before the new Chancellor’s speech to Conservative Party Conference when he got the phone call. Prime Minister Truss was calling to tell him she was U-turning on the policy of abolishing the top rate of tax in the United Kingdom. Just moments earlier, the Chancellor had been defending the policy under questioning from a Conservative MP sat next to him at dinner.
Alongside, the Prime Minister robustly defended the policy that morning on the BBC’s flagship weekend political programme. The screeching U-turn came less than ten days after the Chancellor’s bold ‘fiscal event’ (this was not called a budget to avoid the need for it to be assessed by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility which ‘scores’ government spending decisions) that ushered in the largest tax cuts in recent memory but without outlining how they would be paid for.
This spooked the markets and led to a significant devaluation in the pound and stirred unrest among the business community and many Conservative MPs. After a week of negative headlines, Prime Minister Truss decided to ditch the most controversial part of her economic plan as she feared it would overshadow the Conservative conference and was warned that she didn’t have the votes to get it through Parliament.
The Prime Minister has shown that she will listen to colleagues and change course if needed, which was something her idol Margaret Thatcher also did when pushed, despite claiming that ‘the lady wasn’t for turning’. The big question will be – can the Prime Minister command party discipline in crucial votes ahead when she’s shown so early on in her Premiership that she can be pressured into backtracking? Only time will tell.
Labour is banking on boring
The Labour Party conference was almost unrecognisable. Unlike in recent years, there was no sign of factional battles over policy or process. The party appeared united, and it seems to have finally moved on from the tumultuous years under former leader Jeremy Corbyn. It was also noticeable how businesses had returned, taking up stands in the exhibition area, attending fringe events, and seeking out opportunities to meet with key Labour figures.
There was a clear push from Labour to re-engage with businesses who had been side-lined by Corbyn’s team, with the Shadow business team making the pitch that it was Labour who could be trusted with the economy. When you listened to the speeches of the Shadow Cabinet, culminating in Keir Starmer’s address, the common theme was that Labour was the safe choice and that at the next election it would be more of a risk to stick with the Conservatives.
Starmer is banking on the British public being tired of the chaos of the Johnson years, now followed by the huge (and many would claim unnecessary) economic turmoil of the first few weeks under Truss. He resisted being baited into outlining a detailed policy agenda, instead opting to focus on a handful of policies which signposted the direction the party was going in under his leadership.
These included the creation of the Great British Energy company which appeals to those who favour re-nationalisation of energy companies but without the costs, bolstering his claims about the economy being safe in his hands. He was also clear that Labour would not abolish the top rate of tax – which laid out clear dividing lines between Labour and the Conservatives. Starmer will be hoping that come the next General Election, the British public will be clamouring for their government to be a bit more boring and that this, combined with the differences on taxation and cuts, will be enough to usher in a new ‘Labour moment’.