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Image: Muhammad Aamir Sumsum / Shutterstock
Image: Muhammad Aamir Sumsum / Shutterstock

Long-term decisions will keep Tories in government

John Baron MP
October 31, 2023

The ending of the conference season is one of the punctuation points of the British political year. Over the past few weeks we have seen both main parties attempting to put forward their stalls for the looming General Election. Outwardly Labour put on a disciplined conference, even if policies were light on the ground. By contrast, the Prime Minister set out a number of new policies in his speech, part of his admirable determination to take the right decisions for the country’s long-term success.

The first act in the conference drama came with the Prime Minister’s hastily-arranged press conference just as Parliament rose for the conference recess. While it was described by the Prime Minister’s critics as ‘watering down’ Britain’s ‘net zero’ commitments, this is not fair in the sense that our international obligations will continue to be met.

There is wisdom in ensuring that domestic net zero policies continue to enjoy public support. A wave of scepticism is sweeping European electorates, and we have also seen ULEZ become an electoral issue over here. In a democracy this is quite right, and is in fact the sensible and pragmatic approach if one genuinely wishes to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality whilst also preserving fairness and achievability.

The same is true with the Government’s support for North Sea oil extraction – hydrocarbons will continue to play an important role for our energy needs for many years to come, as the ‘net’ in net zero acknowledges. Quite apart from the large number of jobs dependent on the industry, it is far better that oil and gas is extracted from the North Sea according to our high environmental standards, also minimising the carbon footprint of transportation costs from other countries to the UK. Despite their apparent hostility to North Sea extraction, it is telling that if in government Labour would not rescind the approval for the Rosebank field.

On HS2, the Prime Minister has definitely made the right decision and deserves credit and congratulations for standing up to the powerful pro-HS2 lobby. I have never been in favour of this project, believing it would become the biggest white elephant in infrastructure history and for minimal gains. Spending the £36 billion of savings on other transport projects in the North is a far better use of these resources. Though it’s generally true that people learn to love infrastructure once it’s built, we will still be left with a railway link between London and Birmingham of questionable value. It is galling to consider what else this money could have been spent on over the past decade.

Rishi Sunak is on course for a good working majority at the coming general election Quote

The two longer-term announcements in the Prime Minister’s are also commendable. It has long been considered a weakness of the A-Level system that pupils specialise too early, and a firm grip of maths will be important for our future prosperity. As the former chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Cancer, I also applaud moves to reduce smoking. The creeping ban suggested by the Prime Minister has the advantage of not taking anything away from anyone, in the sense that someone unable to buy cigarettes will now never be able to do so. However, I look forward to studying the matter further in advance of the forthcoming free vote.

One unhelpful development at conference was the ‘Great British Growth Rally’, addressed by the former leader and a number of her key lieutenants from her short and chaotic time at No 10. There is no-one in the Conservative Party who does not want growth, and such a challenge to the party leadership – her speech was timed to overshadow the Chancellor’s – is unwarranted at a time when the whole party needs to pull together to see off the danger of a Labour government.

By contrast, the Labour conference had the aura of a party which believes it is on the cusp of power. This is the hunger engendered by years in opposition, which some Conservatives should reflect upon when they speak of a spell in opposition as being desirable and necessary. Gone were the Labour splits and disagreements which usually characterise their conference, and in place were confident speeches from the Shadow Chancellor, who clearly is in full command of the party’s spending decisions, and from the Leader.

Whilst the policy content of the leader’s speech was light – notably containing no mention of the small boats issue – it was the speech of a man who could be a Labour Prime Minister, and that in itself is a marked difference from the last ten years or so. The Conservatives should also consider how they have allowed the Labour leader to lecture us on planning reform, and on our own goal of giving Labour the last word by allowing them the final conference slot.

I continue to believe that Rishi Sunak is on course for a good working majority at the coming general election, especially as he takes the public with him as he makes long-term decisions. The recent by-elections and current polling are not encouraging, but it would be surprising if a government coping with high inflation, high interest rates and general uncertainly, both at home and abroad, were not suffering bad ratings. In the glare of an election campaign, where Labour will also face intense scrutiny on their political programme, the polls will narrow – and the election is still some way off. The Prime Minister’s competence and compassion will shine through.

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John Baron is the former Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay and a former Shadow Health Minister.

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