The Week

The Week 6 October 2023

Simon Kaye
Director of Policy

In Manchester, the booths have been flat-packed, the venue partitions have been deflated, and hordes of politicos have found their way back to London on the National Express. As all eyes turn to Liverpool (and we once again find ourselves compulsively refreshing the Avanti service updates page) it’s time to ask: what did we learn – in terms of policy – from this year’s Conservative Party Conference?

Local perspectives are still an afterthought

The cancellation of the Birmingham-Manchester leg of HS2 – and the clarification that a Central London terminus will only achieved with significant private sector investment that hasn’t yet materialised – was greeted with consternation by many in the host city. The Prime Minister was sure to set out plans for redirecting investment to a range of smaller transport infrastructure projects in the North – and, indeed, there are many who do view this as a better use for the cash.

Two elements of this ongoing controversy will have far-reaching policy implications. First, even those who think this decision was ultimately sensible will note that it sends a damaging signal that the UK is simply not capable of delivering on large, ambitious infrastructure projects – with much of Whitehall’s major projects register sitting in the red ‘high risk’ category, and international investors looking on.

Second, the approach taken to this decision evidently lacked any real engagement, let alone consultation, with local government. Both the Greater Manchester and West Midlands Combined Authorities – the most powerful and ‘mature’ regional governance structures in England outside London – seemed totally ambushed by the HS2 decision. At Reform’s event with Mayor Andy Burnham and West Midlands Chief Executive Laura Shoaf, it was made abundantly clear that there will be knock-on costs: careful plans, made on the basis of plans made by central government, will now have to be ripped up.

Education is back on the agenda

One major promise from the Prime Minister made clear was his years-long objective to (again) shake up the education system in England. This has been a (relatively) quieter area for policy debate since the major changes initiated during the New Labour years and rapidly accelerated during Michael Gove’s time as Education Secretary. This will be worth tracking – not only in terms of the ideas themselves, which will see the replacement of A-Levels and compulsory mathematics through to 18 (if students stay in education after turning 16) – but in terms of the reaction from the education sector and the Labour party.

Early responses suggest that, for example, education unions aren’t opposed to these ideas – but think they may be unrealistic without a plan to employ and retain more teachers.

A major move on public health – and more clues about workforce productivity

The prime minister’s biggest announcement at conference was a major public health policy idea, which reflects a welcome interest in the prevention of ill-health. The UK is to hold a free vote on whether to emulate New Zealand by introducing a progressive smoking ban. Each year, the legal smoking age will be raised – so that ultimately nobody will be able to legally buy cigarettes. Like all outright bans, this one would come with risks. New Zealand has already seen the emergence of a significant illicit tobacco trade, and uneven progress on smoking cessation for different demographic groups. Moreover, the unusual form of this ban – where one person will never be old enough to legally buy cigarettes, while their friend who happens to be a year older will always be able to – is sure to raise questions.

Other movement in health policy was less obvious, though the Health Secretary did signal a strong interest in the potential for AI to improve NHS productivity by taking on a supporting and administrative role within the system, and there were further hints of a shift toward the use of associated healthcare workers like physician’s associates. This is already proving to be a controversial approach, with some doctors seeing their proliferation as “potentially hazardous”, even though the available evidence suggests that they can improve outcomes and patient safety.

Whitehall – shrinking and returning to the office?

We are once again in the realm of hiring freezes and headcount reductions, as Jeremy Hunt announced in his speech. This was framed as a way to achieve savings for the public purse, but the objective to get staff numbers down to pre-pandemic levels is already being dismissed by some commentators as “arbitrary”. And, at one of Reform’s flagship events, the Minister for the Cabinet Office said that work guidance was being updated to encourage civil servants to stop working from home (a policy that was immediately questioned by Francis Maude).

Our view is that there is certainly scope for a more efficient and productive civil service – but that achieving this, and streamlining the system, will necessarily involve far more devolution of powers beyond Whitehall and the adoption of new mindsets. Watch out for some forthcoming Reform publications on exactly these ideas in the weeks to come.