The civil service; the unemployed; declinists; non-working families; Gordon Brown; the Office for National Statistics: these were some of Jeremy Hunt’s targets in his Conservative conference speech in Manchester today. The Chancellor was buoyant after the recent upwards revision in UK GDP (showing the economy is 1.8 per cent larger than before Covid-19). But his headline announcements were vague. He wants to tighten sanctions for those on benefits to encourage them to get into work. The concession in the other direction was a promise to raise the minimum wage to £11 next year, regardless of what the Low Pay Commission recommends. This is not as radical as Hunt implied: in April this year the minimum wage was raised by nearly 10 per cent to £10.42. Expect the Conservatives to try to pin Labour as soft on benefits in the year to come.
Hunt also promised to impose a civil service hiring freeze, which elicited the loudest whoops from the crowd. To complement the freeze, Hunt said the best way to reduce taxes was to increase productivity. But the announcement that John Glen, his deputy, would undertake a review to boost public service productivity after 13 years in government and a year before the next election was not convincing.
Nonetheless, there were signs of a political consensus emerging over public sector reform. Both parties now talk about the radical improvements in productivity that artificial intelligence could enable. Likewise, Hunt said he wanted to inject long-term thinking into the Treasury – another sign that the Conservatives and Labour are converging over how to manage the public finances.
But the speech was entirely overshadowed by two things. First, across the road at the Midland Hotel, Liz Truss hosted a “growth rally” with fawning Tory activists, distracting the media and exposing the party’s fissures over how to respond to the cost-of-living crisis and low productivity. Second, rumours about the future of HS2 have become a black hole at the conference, consuming all attention. Speculation over the decision has distracted from every policy announcement. It’s remarkable that Tory strategists thought allowing the uncertainty to persist for so long was wise. The main problem for Hunt is that few people will remember what he said.
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