This year’s annual Conservative Party Conference was conducted virtually with speeches from the four most senior cabinet members, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It’s been a tumultuous year since the party’s election victory in late 2019 as the Coronavirus pandemic loomed over the event.
Roar reached out to voices from both the King’s College London Conservative and Labour Associations for comment. The latter group did not respond to our request.
Last weekend, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab focused on Britain’s future after the Brexit transition period is over. He said that leaving the European Union gave the UK a chance to “re-establish our rightful place in today’s world as a truly global Britain”. A new trade deal with Japan in early September and the UK hosting the 2021 UN Climate Summit should bolster that assertion. However, the government came under fire last month for admitting that its new Internal Market Bill will break international law.
Luke Stewart, a War Studies graduate and former General Secretary of the King’s College London Conservative Association, said he was concerned about the impact of the bill on Britain’s ability to strike post-Brexit trade deals. “Many Brexiteers in the Commons are against this Bill…and from her belief that ‘Britain does not break treaties’, even Margaret Thatcher would be against this legislation” he said. Stewart hopes that the House of Lords will alter the bill.
The Chancellor Rishi Sunak gave his speech on Monday, where he reiterated the Conservative Party’s commitment to balancing the UK’s budget deficit. After government’s Coronavirus relief programmes, the national debt stands at over £2 trillion the highest in history. It remains unclear whether Sunak will achieve this goal through a return to austerity or tax increases and how this is compatible with the government’s focus on investment in infrastructure and public services.
Stewart cautioned against going back to Coalition-era cuts saying “The struggles that were endured by people affected by austerity are not ones that they want to experience again after the economic hardship brought about by the pandemic”. Though the Conservatives did pledge not to raise taxes in their 2019 General Election manifesto.
The Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds accused Sunak of having “nothing to say to the millions of people whose jobs are now at risk because of his policies”. The Chancellor has recently been criticised for a new furlough scheme, which would only reimburse workers for 67% of their salary.
While the Sunak emphasised fiscal responsibility, the Prime Minister laid out ambitious plans for a post-Covid Britain in his speech on Tuesday. He expressed hope that the virus would be eliminated by the next conference, remarking that he had had “more than enough” of the pandemic.
The reality remains that Coronavirus is a serious threat with rising cases and a recent scandal surrounding the government’s test-and-trace initiative. Stewart agreed with the Prime Minister’s emphasis on recovery after Covid-19, citing that the lockdowns had had a “detrimental effect” on unemployment and mental health with record-high suicide rates.
He also defended the government’s track record on Coronavirus, saying “I think that the government is doing its best…Coronavirus is something that previous governments of all parties should have been bearing in mind, and the fact they did not means this government is having to make very difficult decisions”. Though Stewart did admit that someone would have to “take the fall” when an investigation is launched into the government’s response. “I could definitely see [Matt] Hancock losing his job as Health Secretary” he speculated.
As for post-Covid plans, the PM made clear that the pandemic would not disrupt his central election pledges to get Brexit done and improve Britain’s infrastructure and public services. Johnson committed to expanding clean energy, hiring more police officers and investing in infrastructure. Though he also criticised the Labour Party for what he called its desire for “state expansion”.
Johnson remains upbeat about the future of this government and made clear his many plans for after the pandemic, which he hopes will maintain the support of crucial swing voters as Labour closes the gap in opinion polls. Polls also show that the PM continues to have the backing of most Conservative Party members though Sunak, Raab and Home Secretary Priti Patel have all been tipped as possible replacements.
Despite saying that Sunak would be the most likely replacement, Stewart believes that people are “jumping the gun” when talking about Johnson being deposed as PM. “The man won the Conservatives their largest majority since Thatcher did in 1987…Boris will be the leader of the Conservative Party come the 2024 General Election” he says.
But Stewart also remains highly critical of this government’s record outside of Covid-19, including the aforementioned Internal Market Bill, handling of exam results and asylum policy. “A vote for the Conservatives nationally right now would mean an endorsement of what I believe to be down right disgraceful governance” he said. Stewart isn’t alone; it’s clear that Johnson needs to win back the support of many of his own Conservative backbench MPs to rebuild his premiership after Coronavirus.