Conservative Party Conference: Setting a new agenda

The Conservative Party Conference marked the beginning of a new era of conservatism under Theresa May.

Theresa May began her speech by praising David Cameron for delivering change but said “now we need to change again”, signalling her intention to make a clean break from Cameron’s time as Prime Minster, which was typified by a move to a more ‘liberal’ brand of conservatism.

This was a theme that ran throughout the conference, with Ministers making significant departures in terms of tone and messaging from the Cameron government. Amber Rudd in particular made headlines with a raft of policies designed to curb immigration and Liam Fox’s speech hinted at a Brexit much closer to the hard end of the scale than Cameron’s team must have envisaged. But it was Philip Hammond’s announcement that the Government will be abandoning George Osborne’s commitment to a budget surplus by 2020 in the wake of Brexit which heralds the most note-worthy shift.

If Cameron’s government had one key message, it was the importance of deficit reduction. The “long-term economic plan” encapsulated this idea, playing on the public’s mistrust of the previous Labour government’s economic record and establishing the Conservative’s credibility as a solution. The key goal of the plan was to return the UK to a budget surplus by 2020, an aim that infused almost all spending choices during Cameron’s premiership.

By abandoning George Osborne’s fiscal rules, Theresa May has shown that the new Conservative government has a very different set of priorities. Elements of May’s speech suggest that there is an ideological component to this shift. For instance, May closed by saying “There is more to life than individualism and self-interest…we succeed or fail together”, a clear reference to the individualistic tenets of Thatcherism which underpinned much of Osborne’s economic policy.

However, the impact of the unique set of circumstances in which Theresa May finds herself cannot be underestimated. Brexit represents the most significant political change in recent memory and brings with it a host of risks and opportunities. The economic uncertainties of leaving the EU mean that it is no longer practical to commit to a short-term return to a budget surplus, forcing a rethink of Conservative economic policy.

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the other hand, the Brexit campaign has also mobilised a significant portion of the electorate, from traditional Labour backgrounds as well as Conservative, under a single banner. The anti-immigration sentiment of this group in particular gives the May the opportunity to target a new audience of potential voters in advance of the next general election. The logic of Brexit determines May’s economic shift to the centre ground, but also her move rightwards on immigration.

It is clear now that the “long-term economic plan” has been dropped from the Conservative Party’s collective lexicon and instead the vagaries of Brexit will be setting the agenda.