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After months of speculation about Theresa May’s plans for everything from Brexit to the economy and devolution, this week’s Conservative Party Conference has brought some clarity about the Prime Minister’s vision for Britain in the coming years.
In her keynote speech today, May promised that “a change is going to come”, as she outlined a broad programme for a Conservative government distinct from both its immediate predecessor and from previous Tory administrations.
In particular, the speech offered a vision of an interventionist government that would build a “stronger and fairer nation”, and would work for “ordinary working-class people” as well as privileged elites. This rhetoric was underpinned by promises to clamp down on tax avoidance, strengthen workers’ rights and representation in private companies and to ensure that everyone across the countries could enjoy the benefits of economic growth.
However, while May’s speech was big on ambition and rhetoric, it offered little in the way of concrete policy proposals. For example, while the Prime Minister reiterated her commitment to putting in place an industrial strategy to get British businesses and industry “firing on all cylinders”, we heard little new detail on what this strategy might comprises. May also resisted the temptation to make the kind of rabbit-in-a-hat announcement which has often formed the centrepiece of Government conference speeches, instead presenting herself as a safe pair of hands to guide the country through the potentially choppy waters ahead.
Given the short life of the Government thus far and the huge ongoing challenges it faces in preparing for Brexit, this lack of developed policy ideas (which also characterised the speeches made by most of her cabinet colleagues this week) was perhaps to be expected. Indeed, the only Government minister to outline specific policy proposals was Home Office Secretary Amber Rudd, which is unsurprising given May’s long stint in the role before her accession to No. 10 this summer.
However, the Prime Minister’s speech did contain two significant points when it comes to the future of UK city politics and economies. First, her promise to help the UK’s great regional cities realise their economic potential implicitly underlined the Government’s commitment to continuing the devolution agenda driven by the previous administration. In paying tribute to Andy Street, the Conservative candidate for West Midlands Mayor, May also confirmed her dedication to ensuring that the first mayoral elections take place next year as planned.
Second, the Prime Minister used the speech as an opportunity to highlight the importance of extending efforts to address regional economic disparities such as the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine initiatives. Most interestingly, she specifically spoke of the need to improve education and skills standards in the North and the Midlands as an integral part of those efforts – marking a shift of emphasis in the Government’s approach from focusing on improving transport links between cities as the primary means to drive economic growth.
Research by the Centre for Cities suggests that the Prime Minister is right to focus on skills-gaps in these regions – with only three Northern cities featuring in the UK top 20 in terms of the number of residents educated to degree level, and every city in the North apart from York having a higher share of low-skilled workers than the European urban average. The next step for the Government must now be to offer more developed proposals on how to go about tackling those skills deficits, beyond May’s promise to lift the ban preventing places from opening new grammar schools.
More broadly, the Government’s reluctance to offer much in the way of detailed policy proposals has enabled it to keep its options open on the big economic questions of the day. But with the Autumn Statement only seven weeks away, and with the challenges posed by ongoing Brexit negotiations only set to deepen in the coming months, the Government will not have this luxury for much longer – and will soon need to develop a policy platform to match the ambition of Theresa May’s rhetoric.
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