As the Conservatives gathered in Birmingham for their annual conference, one could be forgiven for thinking the backdrop could be distracting. Rows over Brexit, Grammar Schools, and the anticipated (and subsequently confirmed) dropping of the deficit reduction, all had the potential to blow the Party off course. Not to mention feverish speculation about parliamentary boundary changes and snap elections.
But from day one, when Theresa May outlined a timetable for triggering Article 50, the focus quickly shifted – for the most part at least – to simply ‘getting on with the job’.
The Government’s key challenges were discussed at length both in the main conference hall and on the fringe, and nowhere was this truer than in response to tackling the nation’s housing crisis. In his keynote address, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid spoke of little else.
Quoting Harold Macmillan, he reminded the conference that “Housing is not a question of Conservatism or Socialism, it’s a question of humanity”. Building homes is a moral duty, Javid argued, that falls on Parliament, business, local government and communities to all embrace together.
He used his speech to outline two key announcements – a £3bn Home Building Fund to help small builders deliver an additional 25,000 homes by 2020 and over 200,000 more in the long term, and a £2bn fund to underpin ‘accelerated construction’ on public land. Nothing too radical there, however he indicated more measures would come in a new Housing White Paper later this year.
On the fringe too, housing had a noticeably higher profile than in years gone by. New Housing and Planning Minister Gavin Barwell was very much in demand, speaking at no fewer than 17 events. In discussions with developers, housing associations, councillors and campaign groups, a number of key themes came through. Perhaps unexpectedly for a Conservative audience, there was widespread agreement that the Government’s ambitious target of 1m homes by 2020 cannot be delivered by the private sector alone. Time and again, the argument was made for more building of every type and tenure – private sale, housing association, PRS and yes, Council housing as well. In line with the newly-announced Home Building Fund, there was strong support for SME builders playing a bigger role too.
Despite Labour’s well-documented problems, there was little room for complacency in Birmingham. A private session saw Party staff outline the challenges of next year’s Council and Combined Authority elections, and delegates were reminded that with over half a million members the Labour Party is still a formidable campaigning force. Meanwhile the well-attended polling update session from Ipsos MORI gave a timely reminder of the comparative strength of the Labour brand, notwithstanding their current Leader’s lack of public appeal.
Of course the highlight of Conference was, as ever, the Leader’s speech. Taking the stage at her first conference as Prime Minister, Theresa May clearly enjoyed her chance to stamp her authority on the Party and – by extension – the country. Articulating the vision she had begun to outline on the steps of Downing Street 84 days earlier, she set out her new kind of Conservatism, different from that which has come before. Putting fairness and opportunity at the heart of her programme, May staked a claim for “the new centre ground of British politics” and hers is not a vision of slavish adherence to free markets alone, but an approach that seeks to “employ the power of government for the good of the people.”
The Conference theme – “a country that works for everyone” – is a great slogan. Time will tell if the message is backed up by delivery but if steely resolve and determination are key ingredients for success, the new Prime Minister has certainly made an impressive start.