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Road to the General Election: Conservative InsightsMarch 10, 2023

Welcome back to Road to the General Election, the new regular political insight newsletter from BCW London’s Corporate and Public Affairs team. This week, we are placing a spotlight on the Conservative Party.

With a team comprised of specialists from both the Conservative and Labour parties, BCW is expertly placed to help you navigate the lead-up to the next general election. For more on how we can support you and your business, please contact our Head of Public Affairs Simon Richards: [email protected]

Leading The Way

Are the Tories Facing an Identity Crisis Ahead of the Next General Election?
By Matthew Sutton, Associate Director at BCW UK

Whilst Rishi Sunak has brought a degree of normality – and some would argue competence – back to government after the turmoil of 2022, the Conservative Party may be facing an identity crisis in the lead up to the next general election as the leadership disconnects with the grassroots.

The axe has fallen on several incumbent MPs who have been deselected from their seats following their purported role in removing Boris Johnson from Number 10. A handful of others, including some seen as ‘rising stars’, have chosen not to seek re-election altogether. Others will be worried about the residual anger amongst large portions of the Conservative grassroots, many of whom remain devoted to Mr. Johnson.

Crucially, these deselections, and the activists behind them, will have implications for what the party looks like, and what it will stand for, in 2024 and beyond. While Labour seems to have a clear mantra around its ideal prospective parliamentary candidate – i.e., one fully supportive of Keir Starmer’s project – the same cannot yet be said of the Conservatives.

If the Conservatives are to win a historic fifth term, they will need to pull off a monumental balancing act, one that keeps the so-called ‘red wall’ of 2019 together, appeases Brexiteers who clamour for more freedom, and restores their reputation with the public as the party of economic credibility.

Whilst ‘Net Zero’ and ‘Levelling Up’ may have defined the Johnson age, we have yet to see what the Sunak project stands for in the longer-term beyond a return to politics as usual (albeit, some may say, boring) – with a steady pair of hands delivering on his five key pledges: to halve inflation, to grow the economy, reduce debt, cut NHS waiting lists and put an end to the small boats crisis in the English Channel.

While Sunak focuses hard on transactional politics, businesses have a real opportunity to push their interests to help define the broader, longer-term policy agenda that will shape the next Tory manifesto currently being developed. Whether by contributing to right-leaning think tanks and the battle of ideas currently taking place in them or cultivating relationships with the local caucuses of Tory MPs that have emerged, routes exist to be explored.

Whilst his position is secure, the Prime Minister does need to restore trust amongst the Conservative Party membership. That is no easy task, given his perception amongst the Tory grassroots as the ‘unelected king’, and the fact he has the shadows of Liz Truss and Johnson peering over his shoulder.

Sunak’s entry into Number 10 has ruffled the feathers of many amongst the Conservative grassroots, and he would be wise to build bridges where he can. Associations are clamoring for more power post-Truss and they are ultimately in charge of selecting those who will sell Sunak’s vision at the ballot box.

We have already seen that he can make good on promises and stamp his authority when required, as evidenced in recent weeks with the Northern Ireland Protocol and Migrant Boat issues. Now, the Prime Minister needs to work out what his vision is for the country, and quickly.

Think Tank Shake Ups

As some political stability has been restored in Number 10 and in Parliament, the ecosystem of right-leaning think tanks seeking to influence government policy has been shaken up by several notable changes both in personnel and political capital, particularly given the decline of free-market and ‘libertarian’ minded think tanks that aligned closely to Liz Truss’ economic agenda.

One group on the rise is the liberal Bright Blue. Led by Founder and Chief Executive Ryan Shorthouse, its work on social, environmental and employment policy has attracted plaudits from the likes of Security Minister Tom Tugendhat and big-hitters like Sajid Javid. Bright Blue is set to release a major report this month outlining a “centre-right vision for housing policy”. BCW understands Bright Blue is also holding 32 events this year at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, at which businesses can engage, as well as via its year-round initiatives like its Business Forum.

Also on the up is the influential centre-right think tank Onward. It has recently hired former Financial Times Whitehall Correspondent Sebastian Payne as its director. The group is considered close to Rishi Sunak’s politics and thinking, with its former director Will Tanner having recently joined Number 10 as Deputy Chief of Staff, while key government figures such as Science Minister George Freeman actively participate in its programmes.

Increasingly known in Westminster for its work on ‘Levelling Up’, infrastructure, science and the Net Zero agenda, last week Onward launched “The Future of Conservatism”, a holistic, nuts-and-bolts project attempting to “renew and refresh” Tory thinking. Launched by Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove alongside Theresa May’s former Chief of Staff Nick Timothy, the programme will comprise a series of public events plus three “substantial” policy papers including:

  1. An overview of the ideology of “national community Conservatism” – a reference to those Tory voters, emerging in 2019, who support strong public investment while retaining traditional conservative social views.
  2. A standalone report ahead of the Chancellor’s 2023 autumn statement, providing greater details on what these pro-investment policies would look like.
  3. Social policy proposals, expected next year.

Well timed to coincide with the party developing its 2024 offer, Onward’s project will likely shape the contours of the next manifesto. Early engagement is therefore critical, including through existing fora such as Onward’s Business Network and its year-round events programme.

State of the Polls

Data taken from Politico’s poll of polls for the United Kingdom (5th March)

LAB – 48%
CON – 26%
LIB DEM – 9%
SNP – 3%

Some projections on this basis still predict a landslide for Labour, with the New Statesman’s ‘State of the Nation’ modelling putting Labour on 417 seats to 138 for the Conservatives.

Though expectations of any polling ‘bounce’ following a successful few weeks for Rishi Sunak wait to materialise, new approval rating polling by Opinium has recorded the Prime Minister’s highest net approval (approve vs. disapprove) since December 2022, though this leaves him on -8 points overall. In contrast, the same analysis has Labour leader Keir Starmer well ahead, on +2 points.

In Case You Missed It

As negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol and the “Windsor Framework” (read BCW’s view on that here) reached fever pitch in recent weeks, the Department for Business and Trade’s significant “British Industry Supercharger” announcement to support big, energy-intensive firms may well have slipped under the radar.

The Supercharger seeks to make British firms more competitive vis-à-vis their global counterparts by helping to deliver affordable, reliable electricity for major industrial companies employing over 400,000 skilled jobs across the steel, metals, chemicals and paper industries. While this activity accounts for 29% of UK exports, these firms can be overly exposed to energy price volatility – something made all too clear by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Building on last year’s Energy Security Strategy, the Supercharger’s initial proposals include network charge reductions and exemptions from certain renewable energy obligation costs such as the Feed in Tariff.

Why does it matter? Well, for some years, heavy industry has been at pains to express the UK’s competitiveness or lack thereof when it comes to electricity pricing and its calls for support levels, in line with EU counterparts for example, have been met with mixed success. Overall, this announcement has been welcomed by the sector, with Dave Dalton, Chair of the Energy Intensive Users Group, claiming it will “help the competitiveness and decarbonisation” of those affected.

With a government consultation on the Supercharger set for Spring 2023, affected firms and industry groups should be thinking hard about a prospective submission, focusing in on how the scheme should look, and what their ‘ask’ of ministers should be. With the scheme’s launch expected in Spring 2024, there’s little time to lose.

Thank you for reading, we’ll see you soon.