Conservative party conference has reasons to celebrate but Brexit and Covid require humility over Universal Credit uplift – John McLellan

When the Conservative faithful start to gather in Manchester tomorrow for the first post-Covid, face-to-face annual conference, it should be one hell of a hoolie.

After an overwhelming 2019 election victory, the completion of Brexit and the stunning success of the vaccination programme, Conservatives have reasons to be pleased with Boris Johnson (Picture: Lindsey Parnaby/WPA pool/Getty Images)
After an overwhelming 2019 election victory, the completion of Brexit and the stunning success of the vaccination programme, Conservatives have reasons to be pleased with Boris Johnson (Picture: Lindsey Parnaby/WPA pool/Getty Images)

Members are free to socialise at last, it’s the first opportunity to celebrate the overwhelming 2019 election result, the completion of Brexit and the stunning success of the vaccination programme.

After Sir Keir Starmer’s attempt to break the shackles of the Corbynite hard-left at a Labour conference marked by bitterness, the opposition is still very much in the doldrums, sitting eight points adrift in the latest poll.

But with Long Covid as much a political phenomenon as a medical one, the pandemic’s shockwaves and unintended Brexit consequences will ensure conference conversations will be dominated by economic and social worries, not back-slapping on a job well done two years ago.

Panic at the petrol pumps, empty supermarket shelves, energy bills set to soar, tax hikes on the way and warnings of a cold, cold Christmas without turkey isn’t the basis for a swellegant, elegant party.

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“Running on empty” says this week’s front of The Spectator magazine, which Boris Johnson once edited, arguing his government is out of ideas.

Those of us on the schlep down from Scotland tomorrow of course view the current situation through the prism of another five years of the SNP and Greens controlling the Scottish Parliament and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promising a “detailed plan” for a referendum in 2023.

Speculation about a snap General Election 20 months from now might not come to pass to avoid a referendum on a referendum, but that would presume Downing Street’s re-election strategy factors in the SNP gaming for a vote it has no power to hold.

At first glance at the Manchester programme, Scotland is not high on the Conservative agenda at this moment; Scottish leader Douglas Ross only has two Fringe events tomorrow, and Scotland Secretary Alister Jack is leading a panel discussion on Tuesday morning, but there are no other sessions dedicated to Scotland or the Union.

The constitution should feature in both Michael Gove’s speech on Monday afternoon and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s address on Wednesday morning, but won’t dominate them. Why should it?

After all, support for independence has been pretty much stuck below 50 per cent since early spring and whatever Ms Sturgeon’s detailed plan may contain it cannot guarantee a change in the UK constitution.

The schedule feels like 2012 when Ruth Davidson only had one early morning main hall appearance when most delegates were still nursing hangovers in bed, but as the 2013 Manchester conference would be the last before the 2014 referendum, instead of a graveyard slot she introduced the Prime Minster to a packed audience. People who had never heard of her were nodding approvingly as she wrapped up a barnstorming performance. She had arrived.

Then, polling averages estimated No would win by 60:40, but 17 per cent of people were undecided and enough were persuaded to go for independence to produce the eventual 55:45 result.

Attitudes have hardened and since April this year undecideds have rarely been out of single figures, making a result too close to call. And too close to call means too close for the SNP to hold, so the “ramping up” of the campaign revealed in the leaked memo from Westminster leader Ian Blackford this week will be designed to lift the Yes numbers consistently above 50 per cent so their argument becomes less theoretical.

Tall though that order may be, unionists cannot afford to be complacent, and the focus this week is on how the UK government can deliver quick and practical solutions, not indulging in constitutional game-playing.

There are plenty of sessions focusing on the broad “levelling up” agenda, and although the urgency to turn that into reality is perhaps greater in Scotland than in the rest of the UK because the stakes are higher, the Scottish government’s rejection of initiatives like Sir Peter Hendy’s Union Connectivity Review and the freeports programme makes it more difficult.

But the average voter isn’t bothered about whether UK investment in Scotland “disrespects devolution” as long as it makes a difference, and local authorities starved of cash by the Scottish government have not been shy in opening discussions with the Scotland Office about how they can benefit.

As long as UK Labour is not breathing down Mr Johnson’s neck, there is less pressure to give ground on issues like the end of the £20-a-week Universal Credit uplift, but not so here as the angry debate in the Scottish Parliament this week showed.

Conservative MSPs correctly argued that getting people off benefits and into work is a priority, but there is no getting away from the fact that approximately a third of Scotland’s 490,000 Universal Credit recipients are already in work, and apart from rising bills they also face paying around £130 a year more in National Insurance contributions when the new Health and Social Care Levy is introduced next April.

Former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has led Conservative calls to maintain the uplift, backed by Ruth Davidson, and with the Prime Minister prioritising the reduction of health inequalities and conscious of the public mood for progress, why start by taking money away from poorer families who have become accustomed to the income?

The economic support through the pandemic has been as much a success for the UK government as the vaccine programme, and as well as the moral case for retention amid rising living expenses, in the context of protecting the Union there’s a strong political case.

Just as when he first revealed the Covid support programme in March last year, and the health and social care investment last month, when he speaks on Monday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak can confound Conservative opponents by confirming a rethink on the uplift. Not as a ploy, but as the right thing to do.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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