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Cancelling the Conservative Party conference illustrates the government’s economic challenge

The problem for ministers is that the sensible precautionary measures they take highlight the risks that people are being asked to bear. 

By Stephen Bush

Conference season is cancelled! The Conservative Party has followed Labour and the Liberal Democrats by, essentially, cancelling its party conference, and moving the event online. It means that all of the United Kingdom’s major parties have cancelled or curtailed their autumn gatherings.

Although party conference has no constitutional role in the life of the Conservative Party, making its cancellation more straightforward than for most of the UK’s other parties, it has an important financial role, generating millions of pounds for the party. That is particularly important in “off-years” (political parties tend to struggle to raise money in years without significant elections, for obvious reasons). And, as with all political parties, annual conference is one of the few things that the party hierarchy does for its members, who give large amounts of their time and money to the Conservatives. 

The online conference is an attempt to square that circle: to do something for lay activists and to retain some of the money the gathering would have raised for the party, while avoiding the added risk of disease that the conference now has.

As with the prohibition on live theatre performances, holding football games in crowded stadiums, and the social distancing measures in cinemas, pubs and restaurants, the shift is a sensible one as far as the objective of “balancing the risks of the novel coronavirus against the economic costs of lockdown” go.

The problem, though, is that the balancing act is intrinsically destructive as far as the aim of boosting the economy is concerned. The consequence of declaring it safe to go to restaurants but not to the theatre is partly that restaurants end up without the walk-in trade they would get from theatregoers, but also that people conclude it is not safe to go to restaurants either.

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And that’s just one of the complex economic problems that the attempt to reopen the economy has to face – that cautious measures, however sensible they may be, send a further message that reopening is dangerous, but abandoning them increases the chance of a second spike in infections, which in addition to the direct human cost would itself send a big message that reopening is unsafe.