The Conservative Conference was not just one of back-slapping and self-congratulation. Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership election has necessitated a relaxation of their policy and rhetoric. In addition to this, prominent speakers at the event from the front bench of the party used words like ‘dangerous’ and ‘threat’ to describe Jeremy Corbyn. They painted Jeremy Corbyn as a legitimate threat to Britain’s national security, whilst simultaneously amending their own policy to make it more appealing to Labour voters.
Chancellor George Osborne said in his speech to those who feel abandoned by a Labour Party, “heading for the fringes of the left”, “let us extend our hand”. Osborne declared that £20 billion in savings must be found, but that he was “not prepared to cut the NHS to balance the books”, he said he wanted to “make sure the NHS has more than ever before.” The Tories have pledged £10 billion to the NHS, and David Cameron has announced the introduction of a seven-day NHS. Something else the Tories are unwilling to cut is the aid budget, 2 per cent of national income will be spent on aid to meet the NATO agreement. The government also want to further ‘The Right to Buy’ scheme, further privatising social housing.
The Chancellor told businesses that he would cut their taxes, making them lower than any other major economy. He called on buisnesses in return must train pay their workers better.
On the subject of the national living wage increasing, Osborne said: “Britain deserves a pay-rise.” Still, he made it perfectly clear that he aims for a budget surplus, and wants to “fix the roof while the sun is shining”.
The Tories are choosing to take the majority of their cuts from welfare, and George Osborne said that he subscribes to the idea that “you don’t show your compassion by the size of the benefits check you dole out.” Rather, the Tories have made clear their prefererence to create jobs, believe that people would prefer the security and dignity of work, and that making work that pays is better than recycling taxes with tax credits. There is, however much speculation as to whether this policy will effectuate any substantial rise in the standard of living for Britain’s poorest families.
Osborne also announced the establishment of an “Independent National Infrastructure Commission” that will work on transport and other building projects. On his theme of a divide between the North and South, Osborne wants to further establish the “Northern Powerhouse” by allowing Greater Manchester further devolution and allowing them to elect their first mayor in 18 months time. He also announced “the biggest transfer of power to local government in living memory,” by allowing councils to keep the money made from business rates – “all £26 billion of it.” He’s set to abolish uniform business rates to allow councils to change them, announcing, “Let the devolution revolution begin.”
Michael Gove headed a drive towards the centre ground by laying out plans to put rehabilitation and reform at the heart of the prison system. Instead of emphasising individuals’ rational choice to offend, he took the more modern approach, pointing out that many prisoners have “grown up in poverty.” The Justice Minister continued that prisons should be places of “hard work, rigorous education and high ambition.”
Measures such as these were contrasted by comments made by Conservatives. In his speech, Michael Fallon, current Defence Secretary, told the conference four new Trident submarines were to be bought, and emphasised the danger of dropping our guard at this point in time. Phillip Hammond said he wanted us to put “security before ideology, and defence before dogma”, announcing a yearly increase in defence spending over the coming Parliament. Sajid Javid, the Business Secretary, talked of the “same old Labour; still thinking businesses are the bad guys”, before saying that “if you back business, you back Britain.”
Theresa May, Home Secretary, set out a review system for refugees and also plans to negotiate the definition of the term “refugee”. She also revealed a scheme to get “better identification” for refugees to help keep track of them and, when they are deemed not in need of our help, deported. Theresa May was very hard on immigration, and having missed her immigration targets hugely towards the end of the last Parliament, she addressed how it caused “strain upon working people”. She said there is no case for immigration of this scale, though she has been Home Secretary for the last five years. Andrew Marr told May in an interview after her speech on Tuesday evening she was “all mouth and no trousers”. The Home Secretary has allowed historically unprecedented levels of migration in the last five years, and it may take more than a tough, dogmatic speech to deflect allegations of hypocrisy.
The Tories are taking strides towards the centre ground and further modernising the party – with even Michael Gove joining in. They have made no bones about the fact that they hope this will help to keep Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour out of the election race, but also say that it is the best way to govern. Conservatives have diluted themselves to a point where it’s almost as if they were still in coalition with the Lib Dems.