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Conference preview: Time for a new localist Tory direction

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A preview of the Conservative conference

Whereas Brighton was this week engulfed by Corbyn mania, Manchester will be conspicuously devoid of May mania in the coming days.

Labour is emboldened by its election defeat and the Conservatives are weakened by their election near victory. Life is funny like that.

The PM is a busted flush, albeit one who will most likely preside over the most politically important event in Britain’s modern history. And if she oversees Brexit well, and just about holds the country and public services together in the meantime, then she’ll surely be unassailable. (The importance of the ‘if’ in that last sentence cannot be overstated.)

The Tory party conference will go some way to showing whether Ms May is dead in the water or whether she just acts that way. It could well be that the prospect of navigating Brexit reliant on the Ulster Unionists for a majority is so awful that prospective Conservative leadership contenders are prepared to bide their time. Alternatively, they may be unable to see a path to actually winning the keys to No 10 for themselves at this point. It’s hard to rock the boat when you have no majority: miscalculate and you’ll have let Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street.

Party conferences of the governing party are normally dominated by policy debate and indications of how the party seeks to make the most of its power. Manchester may be somewhat different.

The Conservatives’ lack of their own parliamentary majority and their leadership’s inevitable focus on Brexit mean domestic policy is relatively hamstrung. While there will surely be a couple of grandstanding announcements designed to ‘prove’ that the government hasn’t lost its focus, the conference may be more remembered for demonstrating the paucity of possible actions of a weak administration.

Local government has hardly been a priority area for Theresa May’s ministers, with the big exception of housing, both in terms of ensuring it is built and the ill-deserved kicking councils (note the plural) got for the deficiencies of Kensington & Chelsea RBC post-Grenfell Tower.

Sajid Javid earlier this month announced a social housing green paper was in the offing. For most of his time in his current office, the community secretary’s efforts have been rather more focused on stimulating growth in the private sector, rather than championing social housing. Mr Javid said the green paper would look at safety, service management, tenants’ rights, accountability, complaints and the broader issue of the role of social housing in “safe and integrated communities”. It would also look at how homelessness can be tackled and how to “get more of the right homes built in the right places”.

It could be that for a local government audience any debate about the contents of the green paper are the most immediately insightful moments of the Tory conference.

And it is certainly harder to anticipate the conference will witness any definitive policy breakthroughs on local government finance, social care sustainability or devolution, even if some lip service is paid to these issues. Greg Clark might have something more positive to say about his industrial strategy.

In the relative absence of many major policy developments, much attention will be paid to the leadership attributes of various candidates to be the Tories’ next leader. There is no clear frontrunner. One leading bookmaker put David Davis at 7/1, with Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees Mogg and Philip Hammond all at 10/1. All were behind Jeremy Corbyn (whose 4/1 odds themselves hardly merit the confidence on display in Brighton).

It is hard to draw any conclusion from Boris Johnson’s 4,000-word treatise on Brexit other than that he is a man contemplating a move. However, he is hardly the darling of the Conservative party that he once was, and he is not averse to dropping out of contests that he is not going to win. The Manchester conference and its immediate aftermath may be the point for any prospective leader to decide whether to put up or shut up until Brexit has happened. Should any of these leading figures be seeking a shot at the leadership, now is the time to pull some rabbit out of a hat, or at least dazzle with an inspiring speech.

We could also witness the more youthful future pretenders to the crown making the sort of arguments that show their party has capacity to break free from its self-defeating naval gazing of the past year. While Theresa May clearly felt unable to antagonise her political enemies by ejecting them from the cabinet after her electoral disappointment in June, anyone who replaces her has leader might feel emboldened to carry out a major clean out. This conference is an opportunity for rising stars to firmly establish an upwards trajectory.

The Tories need a new vision, a vision that goes beyond post-Brexit trade deals and making increasingly unfulfilled promises of home ownership. What is the role of the state, both national and local, in a globalised and digital world? How do we ensure fairness for society’s poorest people in the post-Grenfell era?

Manchester could offer us the first glimpse of this new direction. The Conservative party has an unceasing capacity for reinvention in its pursuit of power. As Labour moves in the direction of a single powerful state, are the next generation of Tories instinctively localist?

Those hoping for the first signals of a localist direction should bear in mind that a similar direction was established for the Tories in 2005 by the Direct Democracy grouping of upcoming figures in the party. This included future business secretary Greg Clark, health secretary Jeremy Hunt and environment secretary Michael Gove. While Mr Clark has retained his localism in high office, the governments of which these men have been a part have tended to sacrifice localism on the altar of political expedience (like so many of their predecessors). Local spend has been cut so their government can place at least some of the blame for service cuts on councils. Events have a habit of forcing young idealists to become slightly older pragmatists.

And – if local government requires any more cheer – it should note that Mr Javid is at a mere 33/1 to be the next prime minister. Almost record levels of unpopularity among council officers by no means rule out the communities secretary from the highest office. He needs to think big if he wants to stand a chance of getting it.

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