Conservative Party Conference: The Highlights

Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce

It’s been a busy week for Brum. Politicians, party members, journos, lobbyists, exhibitors and interested members of the public flocked to the city for the Conservative Party conference.

Taking place at the ICC, this year’s conference was the first for our new Prime Minister and Cabinet and where, unusually, almost all groups were united in interest in one rather important agenda – Brexit. As a result, it’s not surprising that it seemed more jam-packed than ever. See below for a quick summary of some of the stand-out speeches and announcements:

Day 1:

Andy Street, Conservative Candidate for West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) Mayor made it clear that WMCA Mayor election is a battle the Conservatives are looking to fight hard and fight to win, highlighting it’d take just a 4% swing for a Tory victory.

He outlined his campaign priorities: transport, housing, skills, jobs, promoting the region across the globe, demanding a better deal from central government and proactively supporting Birmingham’s bid to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech focused on putting some more detail behind what Brexit means Brexit means. Just ahead of conference, the PM announced that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty would be activated by the end of March 2017. She also announced that a “Great Repeal Bill" would be introduced in the next Queen's speech.

Her speech focused on the “timing, process and vision” for Brexit. Timing: by March 2017, Process: activation of article 50 will be a Government decision, not a vote in the Houses of Parliament, Vision: new relationship with the EU based on "a sovereign UK" and "cooperation between allies", ruling out any existing models of membership.

She stated her hope that free trade in goods and services and access to the single market could be negotiated, but also made clear her ‘red lines’ on the UK needing complete control over immigration and to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

May also announced a review of employment practices in the UK aimed at ensuring workers' rights are protected under changing business models and a growing trend towards flexible or self-employment

You can read the Chamber response to Day 1’s announcements here.

Day 2

Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer officially dropped the 2020 Budget Surplus target set by his predecessor George Osbourne and mentioned plans to soothe Brexit turbulence with  Government investment through the proposed industrial strategy.

He also hinted at a second WMCA devolution deal saying one which would: “include new powers on transport, criminal justice, data, planning and skills” is under discussion.

 Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport confirmed £12 million funding for Midlands Connect for its work in developing the transport links across the Midland and reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to “press[ing] ahead with HS2”.

Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy didn’t give away much about the Government’s new Industrial Strategy but did day it would  focus on sector strengths and potential growth sectors, place, infrastructure and employment practices.

Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government unveiled an Accelerated Construction Scheme, backed by  £2bn Government borrowing aimed at getting houses built on publicly-owned "brownfield" land. He also highlighted a £3bn Home Building Fund to provide loans to stimulate projects and announced that a full Housing White Paper is due later in the year.

Outside of the Party Conference, Theresa May was the surprise guest speaker at a Greater Birmingham and  Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership fringe event on Driving Regional Growth. She used her speech to restate her commitment to powering up regional economies, restate the Government’s commitment to HS2 and champion combined authority Mayors.

At the same event, Sir John Peace, Chair of the Midlands Engine, while discussing the Commonwealth Games bid, HS2 and regional growth predicted that 2026 would be “the culmination of a golden decade for the region”. With all the buzz about the region this week, I wouldn’t be surprised if this phrase catches on.

For the Chamber response to day 2, click here.

Day 3

Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education announced that six social mobility “Opportunity Areas” had been identified, where the Government will trial a “new approach” to education focused on “Knowledge and skills, The right advice, And Great life Experiences”.

Amber Rudd, Home Secretary announced that Government will shortly be consulting on further immigration controls, including tighter rules for British businesses hiring from abroad and stricter controls on international students. Among these were proposals that could force companies to publish the proportion of "international" staff on their books. She also promised councils £140m to address migration pressures

Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health announced plans to train up to 1,500 more doctors a year in England, aiming to reduce the NHS’s reliance on doctors trained abroad.

In other news, Greater Birmingham Chambers joined forces with seven other Chambers from around the region for a networking reception on Transforming Skills in the Midlands. Read more here. 

Day 4

Prime Minister Theresa May spoke again on Thursday. She outlined plans for a “bigger state” than her predecessor David Cameron advocated, with Government ready to intervene in failing markets, business practice and , of course, the industrial strategy.

She flagged up Government proposals for placing workers and consumers on company boards, to be unveiled later this year.

On transport, she stated support for the wider HS2 network beyond the London to Birmingham Phase 1 route. She echoed comments by Chris Grayling by confirming a decision about airports expansion in the South East would be coming soon.

On an unrelated note, we also held the GBCC Annual General Meeting on Wednesday, click here for our write up.

Final Thoughts

As well as being a boon to Broad Street’s bustling bars, hotels and restaurants, the region got plenty of positive PR from politicians. I can’t recall ever hearing so many positive references to Birmingham and the region (the WMCA, Midlands Engine, Chamberlain etc) in one party conference. We will be keeping a sharp eye out to see if the sentiment matches the announcements made in the forthcoming Autumn Statement.

Conservative WMCA Mayor Candidate Andy Street also received vocal backing from the PM and senior figures.

Other buzzwords were, of course, “Brexit Means Brexit” and “a [country/economy/education system/just about everything] that works for everyone”.

Theresa May’s Brexit speech has been interpreted by many as signalling a ‘hard Brexit’. Her red lines on immigration and the European Court of Justice leave many shaking their heads at the possibility of the UK remaining in or securing a high level of access to the Single Market.

In response to May’s speech, the pound hit a 31 year low against the dollar as investors weighed up the risk that a “hard Brexit” could hit trade and investment and, as a result, reduce future demand for sterling. Meanwhile, UK stocks benefitted from the weaker sterling with both the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 seeing strong gains. 

After the EU referendum debate, it’s understandable that being seen to be tough on immigration would be high on the Government’s agenda and quality and compliance are important. But Amber Rudd’s proposals ring alarm bells. Many businesses already report recruitment difficulties and international students provide a significant boost to the economy. Putting up additional barriers to accessing talent at a time when the Government is trying to allay Brexit fears and present the UK as open for business would be counterproductive.

With so many words to digest and so few detailed proposals revealed, we will be doing our fair share of analysis in coming weeks to try and understand exactly what this new leadership’s approach will mean for businesses. The next behemoth of the political calendar will be the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on the 23rd November which will shed more light on forthcoming Government activity.