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Reflections on Party Conference

October 6, 2016

Mark wrote the following article for local Conservative Association magazine, Blueprint, reflecting on Conservative Party Conference and the challenges ahead for the new government. 

I sit down to write my Blueprint contribution on my birthday, which normally coincides with Party Conference but this year comes a day after our stint in Birmingham and Theresa May’s first speech to the party faithful as our new leader.

Birthdays provide a moment to reflect and to contemplate the future, and conference certainly provided plenty of food for thought on the challenges ahead. The Prime Minister reminded us that this is a big moment for our country, a moment that calls for us to reshape our nation once again – and we must all step up.

I was delighted to be reappointed as Vice Chairman (International) of the Party before conference and hosted in Birmingham a huge range of international guests including Ambassadors, sister party leaders and participants in some of our democracy-strengthening programmes in developing nations. All were eager to hear how the UK intends to position itself globally in the years ahead, and how we might reinvigorate our trading links.

I shared a panel with former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, Leader of the Canadian Opposition, Rona Ambrose, and Ambassador Mark Green from the International Republican Institute, who all reminded me of the huge opportunity Brexit provides to reboot the Anglosphere and reaffirm shared values of free trade, open markets and liberal democracy. I later asked for their reflections on our conference, and they said they were struck by the sober, business-like atmosphere and sense of common purpose among activists to make post-Brexit Britain a success.

Conference provided an equally important opportunity to reassure European allies. As many of you will know, I am half-German and have spent many years building strong links with counterparts in Germany, particularly within Angela Merkel’s CDU party. Our friends take it as a given that our successful, ongoing trading and diplomatic relationship will continue but talked about the tricky general election ahead for Mrs Merkel in 2017. With economic and migration troubles high up the agenda for German voters, they made clear to me that the German Chancellor is in no mood to prolong any negotiations on Brexit and is not inclined to offer access to the single market without some commitment on our part to freedom of movement. How to make this compatible with Theresa May’s determination to restrict such movement will no doubt be a hard divide to overcome but I nonetheless believe there is scope for an accommodation that will give us ultimate control of our borders and strengthen the link between migration and work.

As someone who has long been concerned about the continuation of ultra-loose monetary policy, I was fascinated by the Prime Minister’s explicit mention in her speech of the pernicious effects of low interest rates and quantitative easing on savers and the asset poor. While the pause button has been pressed on economic policy since the financial crash of 2008, global politics has become ever more tumultuous, and I am reassured by her enthusiasm to deliver a change in direction. A parliamentary trip to Japan just before conference, where I met Japanese ministers and business folk, underlined to me the limits of what central bankers can achieve, and I expect to see in the Autumn Statement not only a new raft of government-led infrastructure projects but strategic interventions to boost key industries and intensified efforts to improve productivity.

The Prime Minister’s promise to lift the ban on grammar schools is one element of this productivity drive. If our economy is to thrive in future, we shall need a workforce on par academically with the school leavers of countries like India, China and Malaysia where there is an ongoing cultural passion for the opportunities afforded by education. Similarly, if we are to address widespread public concern about the cost of benefits, entrenched worklessness, low wages, and employers’ demands for a skilled workforce, we shall need to tackle our indigenous skills shortage head-on. Alongside our commitment to grammar schools, I should like to see the rolling out of top quality vocational and technical schools that recognise the talents of those with practical leanings. It was wonderful to talk to Cllr Robert Davis at conference about plans for the Sir Simon Milton UTC which will deliver targeted education and training programmes for young people in Westminster who seek careers in transport engineering and construction. I hope when it opens in September next year, this technical college will be just the first in a chain of such institutions.

As I contemplate the year ahead, I cannot pretend to be undaunted by the scale of the challenge facing government in extricating ourselves from the EU and preparing Britain for its new future. However it is equally an enthralling and exciting challenge. If Party Conference is about rallying the troops and providing leadership to the country, I think the new Prime Minister has got off to a tremendous start!