Conservative conference 2021: everything you need to know

Boris Johnson under pressure to flesh out his ‘levelling up’ agenda

Boris Johnson
(Image credit: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson is heading into the Conservatives’ conference this weekend to lay out his post-pandemic agenda with a new top team following his ambitious cabinet reshuffle.

The Tory leader has already unveiled social care funding reforms that steer his party into unchartered “tax-and-spend waters”, as the London Evening Standard’s political editor Nicholas Cecil noted after the announcement earlier this month.

Although the prime minister’s plan to hike National Insurance contributions has proved unpopular with some voters and Conservative colleagues, Johnson appeared to be entering “the often frenzied party conference season solidly at the helm of his party”, wrote Cecil.

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But with the UK now facing further so-called black swan events, including the ongoing fuel shortages crisis, some commentators are asking whether Johnson still retains a firm grip on power.

When and where

The Conservative Party conference 2021 is taking place from 3 to 6 October at the Manchester Central Convention Complex and will be streamed online.

What to expect

Johnson is planning something “a little different” when he delivers his keynote speech in Manchester, according to The Times. The PM will “stand in the centre of the room”, surrounded by his ministers and Conservative party members, the paper reported.

And “taking a direct note out of his Downing Street neighbour Rishi Sunak’s playbook”, Johnson will “pitch himself as the man prepared to make difficult decisions in the national interest”.

His government, he will reportedly say, is willing to “do what needs to be done”.

Toy voters and industry bosses may be in need of reassure following the tax hikes announcement. The Conservatives will enter the conference looking to “reassure the business world that all is well”, wrote the BBC’s political reporter Justin Parkinson.

Chancellor Sunak will speak on Monday, “dubbed ‘Business Day’, when industrialists and entrepreneurs will be wined and dined”, said Parkinson. Planned events include panel sessions on “Levelling up”, “Skills, Employment and Growth” and the push to “Build Back Greener”, according to the official conference website.

Johnson may also be looking to put “a little more flesh on the bones of his ‘levelling up’ plans for the UK” during his speech, added Parkinson. And the PM will undoubtedly be keen to “vaunt the success of the vaccines programme and, with the economy improving, project a sense of optimism”.

Challenges ahead

Although Johnson “invariably gets a rapturous response” from the party faithful, wrote the BBC’s Parkinson, he is also facing the ire of the Conservative grassroots over his controversial social care funding plans.

In the wake of the tax rise announcement, The Telegraph reported that activists were “starting to rip up their membership cards” and that some cabinet members were “privately deeply concerned”. An unnamed minister told the paper that they feared the plans were “the death knell of Conservatism”.

Amid ongoing unrest, John Strafford, chair of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, is organising a fringe event at the conference, titled “Time for the Conservative Party to be Conservative” .

Johnson will also be under pressure to give more details about how he intends to ‘level up’ the UK, with commentators complaining that plans for the policy remain vague.

Despite the scepticism, the PM views the project as a key part of his “political legacy”, said The Times.

“I don’t think people quite appreciate how seriously Boris takes levelling up,” a senior Whitehall source who “has spoken to Johnson at length about the subject” told the paper.

“There are two things he sees as his legacy. The first is net zero and the second is levelling up. He knows he is going to be judged on that at the next election.”

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