HS2 is Go is message from confident Tories

Julian France, ACE policy and external affairs director

ACE’s Julian Francis picks out his five key highlights from last week’s Conservative Conference which revealed a party in tune with infrastructure, including high speed rail.

The Conservative Party gathered this week for its annual conference in Birmingham, the traditional home of liberal unionism, having gambled and won on coalition and Scottish independence. Julian Francis highlights the five key things that emerged over the course of the four days.

1.     Election? No Problem!

On  entering the secure zone in Birmingham you were hit by a strong feeling of optimism and energy that was so noticeably lacking during the Labour Conference. Here was a party that knows it is in government and is confident that it will be for some time. Despite the fact that the polls have shown a significant Labour lead for months now this has had little impact on the party’s confidence. After all, despite what his opponents say, David Cameron has been surprisingly successful having won two constitutional referendums, successfully managed an unlikely coalition and steered the country through the shoals of a potentially unpopular austerity programme.

With longevity and success comes political authority and this was on full display as a confident Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues set out their vision for a Conservative government in 2015 to the delight of a party faithful certain they can see the Promised Land within reach.

2.     Building Growth

"The answer seems to be government investment in new infrastructure projects that can boost the UK economy, especially in the North."

Looking through the conference fringe programme it is clear that infrastructure is now the big issue for Conservative politicians desperate to see some growth and prosperity. Housing, roads, rail, airports and energy production and distribution dominated the fringes.  Although proud of the fact that the Chancellor has managed to steer the UK through recession towards growth, the party faithful is haunted by the spectre that this is a prosperity free recovery with most families’ still materially worse off than they were in 2008. The answer seems to be government investment in new infrastructure projects that can boost the UK economy, especially in the North. George Osborne has stated his desire to rebalance the UK economy by investing in England’s northern cities to compete with London and so any infrastructure projects that can deliver this goal stand a good chance of being approved by a Conservative government.

3.     UKIP if you want to, the Party’s not for dreaming

Before the delegates had even packed their bags, the Conservatives were hit with the double punch of the defection of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless to UKIP, reopening the European wound that the party has been trying to heal. Yet far from dispiriting and demotivating the party the defections have had the opposite effect of galvanising activists that are angry at the betrayal of two of their own. Before this week, party campaigners saw UKIP as a supernatural threat that would sap the strength of the party but now there is a view that UKIP may be all mouth and no trousers. A lot of the credit for this transformation should be placed at the door of Lynton Crosby, the Australian campaign strategist handling the Tory election campaign. Seen stalking the hall of the conference like a  battlefield general, he praised and buoyed up troops wherever he went and ensured that any MPs thinking of jumping ship were left in no doubt of the fate that awaited them if they tried.

4.     HS2 is Go!!!

One of the most surprising things about this year’s conference compared to those over the last couple of years is the level of support there is amongst Conservatives for HS2. The general view now is not whether HS2 is a good idea but rather when it will happen. Even in the fringes sponsored by the main opponents of the scheme, The TaxPayers’ Alliance, the primary issue was over the route and the organisation of the project rather then its merits per se.

"The general view now is not whether HS2 is a good idea but rather when it will happen."

This more than anything else shows the transformation in the party’s position on large scale infrastructure projects as the need to grow the UK economy trumps the calls of preserving the countryside. In fact, the heresy of building on the green belt was challenged by ministers who have continually stated that this option should be considered going forward. The lack of outrage to these comments speaks volumes.

5.     Devolution all round

In the wake of the Scottish referendum, devolution is back on the agenda for all the main parties and the Conservatives are looking to lead this latest drive rather then follow in the wake of Labour. The Prime Minister’s call for ‘English Votes for English Law’ started a race amongst the parties to be seen as in touch with the anti-Whitehall mood in the country. The Conservatives see city-regional devolution as not only a way to help balance out Scottish and Welsh devolution but also as an excellent way to trigger economic regeneration outside of London.

This has created a situation whereby Conservative minister Brandon Lewis can sit on a  panel with Sir Albert Bore, Labour  Leader of Birmingham City Council,  and both state they support city devolution. This strong level of cross party support means that this policy will be implemented after the next election regardless of who wins. All that remains to be discussed is the detail.


Julian Francis is ACE’s director of policy and external affairs