As the party conferences get underway, three experienced analysts share their thoughts on the challenges facing each of the main political parties. In this article, Andrew Gamble says it will be important to listen to what the Conservatives do not say, as well as what they do.
This year’s Conservative conference will first of all be a celebration of the party’s unexpected victory in the May General Election, the first time the Conservatives have won a parliamentary majority since 1992.
One of the foundations of that victory was the success of the Conservative narrative contrasting Labour overspending and recklessness with Conservative prudence and responsibility.
At their conference the Conservatives will repeat the main themes of that narrative of the crisis, the importance of paying down the deficit and achieving a surplus on the public finances.
At the same time in order to win the election the Conservatives made promises designed to win the support of every section of the electorate, and progress towards the implementation of some of these promises will be highlighted at the conference.
It will be interesting to note those promises which receive no mention at the conference, which may indicate that the government has begun to have second thoughts about them. It was not expecting that it would have to implement many of them.
Speeches by government ministers, particularly the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, will be scrutinised for the hints they contain as to where the burden of cuts will fall.
Having protected so many areas (Defence being the latest to be added to the list) the cuts in remaining departments, particularly Business, Transport and Local Government will have to be draconian, unless the government decides to use the current buoyancy of fiscal revenues to soften them.
George Osborne already signalled an easing of the cuts in his budget after the election, but the government’s strategy of achieving a surplus and then delivering significant tax cuts before the next election in 2020 remains in place.
This strategy is dependent on the economy continuing to grow at 2% per annum throughout this Parliament, and is highly vulnerable to external shocks such as the current slowdown in the Chinese economy.
The government may want to get its excuses for failing to meet its targets in early. It cannot go on blaming the last Labour government for ever.
Ministers are likely to say as little as they can about immigration (since it has just spectacularly missed its own target) or about the government’s EU renegotiations, both of which cast long shadows, and excite great passions within the party.
They will say more about their ambitions for the Northern Powerhouse, and for making the Conservatives the party of working people.
Labour’s move to the left following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader will be depicted as threatening the financial security of every family in Britain. The clear blue water dividing the parties on welfare, public ownership, the deficit, public investment, tuition fees, new trade union laws, and taxation will be emphasised.
In this way the Conservatives will seek to frame the argument on economic competence and trust for the next five years, casting Labour as both incompetent and dangerous.
Andrew Gamble is a Professorial Fellow at SPERI and author of many distinguished books on political economy, including The Conservative Nation, Politics and Fate, and The Spectre at the Feast. His latest book is Crisis without End? The Unravelling of Western Prosperity. He is a member of the advisory board of the Mile End Institute.
This article first appeared on the Speri blog.