The Conservative Party conference is turning out to be full of surprises. Theresa May has promised an Ed Miliband manifesto of investment, intervention and One Nation politics while Amber Rudd has been accused of saying foreigners are from Nation One-B. Today has seen several announcements about big infrastructure investments and there has been lots of talk about the need for government spending because Brexit will be a bumpy road or even a roller-coaster. The deficit target has been dropped so that this new, social Conservativism can be rolled out. But is it not a little bit funny that much needed public services haven’t been mentioned at all and unpopular, previously stalled projects are the only ones getting a boost?
This morning we heard that HS2 and the 3rd runway at Heathrow will be given the green light. The UK definitely needs infrastructure upgrades but there were massive questions about whether HS2 is value for money, whether it would benefit ‘left-behind Britain’ to simply absorb Birmingham into London’s commuter belt and of course, a large number of Tory faithful in the Chilterns were really peeved about their backyard being subjected to redevelopment. The runway again is arguably necessary but there were questions about increased noise and air pollution for locals as well as whether London was the best place to focus yet more importance when, say, Birmingham is about to have a faster connection with the capital and could perhaps benefit more from increased footfall.
We don’t have to worry ourselves about any of these considerations anymore because Brexit has forced our hand! Since the referendum result, the CBI amongst others has been calling for increased infrastructure investment, specifically Hinckley Point C, HS2 and the 3rd runway at Heathrow. Hinckley was given the go-ahead (along with two other nuclear stations) just after a speech by business leaders saying Brexit demanded it. Again, the UK does need new energy sources and there is a lot to be said for nuclear as a low carbon option, but the problem comes when public concerns (over price, priorities, pollution and security in Hinckley’s case) are over-ridden because our government has become a War Cabinet with executive powers.
Today’s other announcement about fracking finally being given the green light is surely proof of this. Lancashire Council had denied the fracking operation only last year but now Brexit demands we go ahead. Fracking may offer cheaper heating for pensioners during the winter – they’ll need it when Brexit bites – but it is also linked with earthquakes and other environmental problems. You may not think small earthquakes are much to worry about but remember, Brexit has just been used as an excuse for pushing ahead with three new nuclear power stations.
Theresa May has been promising a new kind of Conservatism that will work for everyone, backed by borrowing and investment and an end to austerity. But didn’t we hear such promises from David Cameron? Compassionate Conservativism paved the way for an austerity regime that disproportionately affected the poorest children and undoubtedly exacerbated the problem of ‘left-behind Britain‘, ultimately increasing support for Brexit. The Conservatives were going to be the greenest party ever until Cameron said we needed to ‘cut the green crap.’ Osborne talked of deficit reduction targets and missed them at every checkpoint, but still kept saying they were in our future (makes you wonder about new promises for NHS self-sufficiency by 2025.) Are promises about increasing workers’ rights meaningless when the government is pushing for a Brexit that is already being set up as a national emergency?
Localism was important but now it’s not because of Brexit. Theresa May is promising increased workers rights now but will Brexit change the goal posts in two or five years time? It’s almost inconceivable that a government would get rid of the minimum wage, but it is entirely conceivable that this government would freeze the minimum wage because ‘Hard Brexit’ was really damaging the economy. A freeze is a real term cut as many of the worst off from austerity will tell you.
As Theresa steers ever closer to Hard Brexit will we begin to hear the old mantra about “hard choices” and about how “we’re all in it together” while a Conservative government implements traditional Conservative policies that ramp up inequality? To make a success of damaged, Brexit Britain will we see lower corporation tax, slashed public services, stripped back workers’ rights and an end to green targets? Those are classic Conservative values, they’re what many Brexit leaders want and we’re seeing unpopular projects being pushed through already, just like we did with austerity. The only change is that this time the excuse isn’t the deficit, it’s: Brexit made me do it.