How Johnson can win his looming policy battles

The Conservative Party conference may feel like a victory lap for the prime minister. But he cannot afford to be complacent

October 01, 2021
Photo: DFphotography / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: DFphotography / Alamy Stock Photo

Party conferences are unpredictable affairs—just ask Theresa May. In 2016 she was cheered from the rafters for a speech that challenged Conservative orthodoxy on tax, public spending and economic management. A year later, in the wake of the 2017 election, her speech was interrupted by a persistent cough and crumbling stage—a scene which inevitably became a morbid allusion to her fragile premiership. 

For Boris Johnson, this year’s gathering should be a victory lap. It is the first time the Conservative Party has met in person since he won a handsome majority, got Brexit done and vaccinated the UK out of the grip of rolling lockdowns. Though in the aftermath of a reshuffle in which the prime minister ruthlessly exercised his authority and a Labour conference that ruthlessly exposed Keir Starmer’s lack of authority, Manchester may feel more like the start of the long campaign for the next election than the afterparty for the last.

But the new-look Cabinet cannot afford to be complacent. Not only does politics have a habit of not going to plan, as the last week of fuel shortages and panic buying reminds us, but there are several looming policy battles that could quickly trip the government up if it does not take care. The most urgent are: introducing planning reforms to build more homes, pursuing devolution to level up regional growth, and implementing the changes necessary to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Here is how ministers can steer them through the thicket of party conference and the spending review three weeks later.

First up, planning. The government’s planning reforms have been on the endangered list since the Chesham and Amersham by-election, when local opposition to housebuilding helped overturn a 16,000 Tory majority on a 25-point swing. But that defeat—and shock council results like it in Surrey and Hertfordshire—are reactions to the current planning system, which incentivises incremental building on the edge of villages and fails to put in infrastructure to service new development upfront, rather than to the proposals outlined in the Planning Bill. 

Rather than dropping efforts to get the Bill through, ministers should do two things. First, revise zoning plans and drive development towards the places people are most willing to accept housing—in new garden towns and villages and in existing cities through densification. Next, they should replace the stick of mandatory housing targets with the carrot of infrastructure spending. If councils were unable to benefit from infrastructure funding until they had adopted their Local Plan (which sets out the vision for future development in the borough, and requires approval from an independent inspector) it would quickly become more politically costly to block new housing than to approve it—inverting the current incentives towards nimbyism.

Second, decentralisation and levelling up. The Conservative manifesto promised “full devolution.” The prime minister’s levelling up speech pledged to “re-write the rulebook, with new deals for counties.” But the risk with any local government reorganisation is that empowering one layer inevitably undermines another part of the system. District councillors are often seen as the party’s footsoldiers, which is one reason why forcing every area to adopt unitary government has so far been kept off the table.

One way through this thicket—again using the carrot, not the stick—is to make reorganisation voluntary, but to make the offer too good for local areas to refuse. The government could give upper-tier authorities—counties, unitaries and metro mayors—powers and funding that simply do not exist at present.

For example, if top-tier authorities were given spatial planning powers to masterplan large-scale development, stronger compulsory purchase powers to buy strategic parcels of land and access to infrastructure funding to reorganise local transport networks, they would have a far greater ability to drive growth in their area—and a much stronger incentive to reorganise themselves. The success of the Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, proves the value that such local strategic leadership can bring.

Third, decarbonisation. Despite being the party that put the 2050 target into law only two years ago, there is growing disquiet about the costs and disruption that net zero might entail. This has rightly failed to dampen the prime minister’s enthusiasm for global leadership on the issue. But it should make ministers think hard about how they pursue it. 

The most important principle for Conservatives is to treat the issue like they treat most economic issues—that is to say, as a question of incentives. What message are consumers sent by the fact that electricity, now almost entirely powered by green energy sources, attracts the same VAT rate and higher surcharges on energy bills (to pay for the capital costs of renewable technology) than carbon-intensive gas?

The same is true of goods imported from countries with lower environmental standards that are much cheaper than produce grown in the UK. Until carbon emissions are accounted for in the product price, is it reasonable to expect green products to become competitive, or for consumers and companies to change their behaviour on anything like the scale required? That is not how markets tend to work.

The Conservative Party meets in Manchester in a far stronger position than it could have ever hoped for after the greatest shock in economic history. Things are so rosy that people openly talk of the prospects of an early election. But before everyone gets ahead of themselves, ministers should grasp the nettle on the policies currently languishing in the “too difficult” box. 

Take it from someone who was in Downing Street when May went into the election in 2017: governments that fail to use their majority while they've still got it come to regret it.