Party Conference Round-up Lexcomm


After three weeks of spin, drama, and speeches…nothing has really changed. The post-conference polls look strikingly similar to the pre-conference ones and the performances of the party leaders brought no surprises. And despite cats, immigration, and the booing of Tony Blair, the positions on the leader board remain largely unchanged. 
While David Cameron was far from his best yesterday, he did as much as he needed to. Although his speech was widely criticised as pedestrian, he reinforced his position as the most convincing party leader and the Conservative Party’s best asset.
While the cat-gate row between Home Secretary Theresa May and Justice Secretary Ken Clarke on the Human Rights Act may rumble on, the Conservative Party remains remarkably united and the top team stayed largely on message all week. Even Mayor of London Boris Johnson stifled his rebellious instincts in his crowd pleasing appearances.
The PM’s speech could have gone wrong. The pre-briefing that he would call on people to pay down their debts backfired, reflecting poorly on Cameron’s inner circle. Even though Cameron altered the reference in his speech to be more of an observation than an order, the media coverage will not help convince voters that Cameron understands their difficulties and is ‘on their side’. The Conservatives are desperate to find simple political messages to back up their economic strategy.  Unfortunately, the current environment does not lend itself to simplification.
The defining political moment of the conference season was the booing of the name of Tony Blair during Ed Miliband’s speech by a small group of union delegates. Had Miliband taken the opportunity to deviate from his script and challenge the hecklers it would have provided the perfect illustration of leadership. Instead it gave Cameron and Osborne a gift for their conference speeches. 
While Miliband appeared to do all he could to distance himself from the New Labour years, many of the themes at the Conservative party conference had Blairite origins; notably academies, which are now attended by more than one million children, and the health reforms which the Conservative Party are keen to portray as an evolutionary step from the policies promoted by Blair and former Health Secretary Alan Milburn.
The relatively light focus on policy at all three conferences is a symptom of both the nature of Coalition government (in the requirement for joint policy making) and the Labour Party’s understandably cautious approach to policy development at this stage in the political cycle.  Cameron only had one substantial announcement, a pledge to increase adoption rates, which was widely applauded. 
Chancellor George Osborne, who delivered a strong speech on Monday, made the major announcement of conference. ‘Credit easing’ will give established small and medium sized businesses access to government loans. Details are expected in the next few weeks but the immediate reaction was mixed with commentators uncertain about the practicalities of the scheme. 
Ed Miliband emerges from the conference season weakened, but not catastrophically so. His call for a new tax regime to encourage producers over predators was not well received, although there is a sense on the left that he at least has a distinctive idea. He does have free reign now to reshuffle his team, following the abolition of party wide elections to the Shadow Cabinet and he is expected to announce a new team shortly.  However, Miliband will not be undertaking this delicate task from a position of strength.
If he decides to have a thorough overhaul of his team, promoting from the new cohort, he will have to manage widespread disaffection amongst those he sacks or demotes, and from the wider Parliamentary party. They will not be pleased if members who either did not secure enough votes in the Shadow Cabinet elections last year, or did not stand, are promoted to the front bench. 
Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers will return to work pretty much unchanged by the conference season. They may be strengthened by the united approach of most of the front bench in their conference speeches; this was particularly noticeable at the Conservative Party Conference. There also appears to be a growing acceptance of the nature and realities of coalition amongst the Conservative and Liberal Democrat grass roots. Nick Clegg had an uneventful conference with a forgettable but reasonable speech. He will be relieved to have made it through his own conference with  no major rows or upsets. 
The Cabinet will be focussed on the need to find routes and means of securing economic growth. The Autumn Statement on 29th November will be a major focal point, although it will be more of a summary of the nation’s finances than  a roll call of new policies. The economic outlook is uncertain at best and the release of disappointing growth figures yesterday suggests that the UK’s recovery is slowing. This is the major political issue of our time and the 2012 conference season could be bleak for all of the parties if the trajectory of economic growth does not change course.

Good week
•  Mayor of London Boris Johnson was remarkably on message and gave the best received speech of the conference.  He also confirmed that he will not stand for Parliament if he is re-elected as Mayor, thus ruling himself out of any leadership potentially until 2016, following the next General Election.

•  George Osborne gave a solid explanation of the Government’s economic policy in his speech with strong sections on areas for future growth in the economy.  He was also tipped by fellow Cabinet Member, Michael Gove, as the most likely to succeed Cameron as party leader and this was followed by David Cameron’s quip in his speech about the ‘Boy who would be King’.

Bad week
•  Baroness Warsi had a low profile at conference, never a good sign for a party Chair, only raising her head above the parapet in a less than helpful intervention to describe some of the Boundary Commission’s proposals for the new constituencies as ‘insane’.
•  Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, Andrew Tyrie, caused outrage amongst Tory command with his front page interview criticising the Government’s growth policies on the eve of conference.  He later retracted his comments and praised George Osborne’s speech, later denying that he had been ‘encouraged’ into doing so by Steve Hilton.

Ahead of the House of Commons returning on Monday we look at the important political milestones and key legislative developments.

Political developments
•  The Autumn Statement will be delivered by Chancellor George Osborne on 29th November. The Office for Budget Responsibility will publish its latest economic forecasts earlier in the day.
•  The Leveson inquiry into press standards and media ownership will begin taking evidence in mid November.  The inquiry is due to report to the Culture Secretary and the Home Secretary in summer 2012.
•  New leaders will be elected to the Scottish Conservative and Labour parties on 4th November and 17th December respectively.

Progress of flagship legislation
•  Health and Social Care Bill: Now in the House of Lords, the second reading, the general debate on all aspects of the Bill, is scheduled to take place on 11th October.
•  Education Bill: The House of Lords report stage is scheduled for 18th October.
•  House of Lords Reform Bill: The Committee stage is scheduled to start on 21st October in the House of Lords.
•  Localism Bill: Report stage in the House of Lords is scheduled for 10th October.
•  Welfare Reform Bill: Committee stage continues today (6th October) in the House of Lords.

Future legislative developments
•  The draft  Financial Services Bill is in its pre-legislative stage. Its First Reading is expected in early 2012.
•  The  draft Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill has been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny and is expected to be published in full in the second session.
•  The progress of the future Communications Bill will continue, with the call for evidence earlier this year resulting in 300 responses. A White Paper and Draft Bill to be published by April 2013.

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