The Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester has seen Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt announce a hike in the national minimum wage, highlighting the party’s commitment to supporting struggling workers. However, Hunt dismissed the possibility of tax cuts, citing concerns about inflation. Former Prime Minister Liz Truss, who previously caused economic turmoil during her time in office, called for tax reductions at the conference, but Hunt did not offer any immediate promises.
Hunt revealed that the hourly rate for workers aged 23 and older will increase from £10.42 ($12.70) to at least £11 ($13.40) in April next year. The exact amount will be determined by the Low Pay Commission. Hunt estimated that over 2 million workers would benefit from the pay increase.
In addition to the minimum wage hike, Hunt pledged to freeze civil service recruitment as a cost-cutting measure and announced plans to tighten the rules on social benefits to address the increasing number of working-age people leaving the workforce, a trend that has accelerated due to the pandemic. However, these remarks drew concerns from anti-poverty groups, who argue that the changes may disproportionately affect vulnerable individuals.
The Conservative Party aims to appeal to voters with these measures ahead of the next national election scheduled for 2024. However, the party’s ability to implement significant policies is limited due to the sluggish economy and persistently high inflation, which reached double digits last year and currently stands just below 7%. As a result, the government has primarily focused on relatively low-cost policy announcements during the conference. These include banning children from using cellphones in school, curbing excessive fines imposed by local authorities on motorists, and advocating for smarter regulation.
Critics argue that the Conservative Party lacks fresh ideas and is heading towards defeat in the next election. Currently, the center-left opposition Labour Party maintains a substantial lead over the Tories in opinion polls. After years of political turmoil surrounding the UK’s exit from the European Union, the pandemic, and the cost-of-living crisis exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, voters are growing weary.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who assumed office less than a year ago, is facing discontent and occasional open rebellion from some Conservative members and lawmakers. Sunak has worked to stabilize the economy after his predecessor Liz Truss’s controversial economic plans led to a decline in the pound’s value and damaged Britain’s reputation for fiscal prudence. However, doubts remain within the party as to whether Sunak can regain the popularity that allowed the Tories to secure an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons in 2019. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned in 2022 amid ethical and judgment scandals.
Sunak has recently introduced a series of measures intended to alleviate the economic burden on taxpayers. For example, he delayed the ban on selling new gas and diesel cars and relaxed other green policies, arguing that they imposed unacceptable costs on ordinary people. Critics argue that these moves will have minimal impact on individuals’ finances and jeopardize the UK’s goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The conference in Manchester has also provided a platform for various Conservative politicians to position themselves for a potential leadership contest following a defeat in the next election. Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch have both sought support from the party’s right wing, advocating for stricter immigration policies and challenging what they perceive as excessive liberal values. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, on the other hand, has focused on appealing to centrist Conservatives. Liz Truss, despite her previous resignation in disgrace, has remained active in the conference, expressing her views and potentially causing difficulties for her successor.
The event has been marred by transportation issues, with a train drivers’ strike disrupting the plans of some delegates and journalists. Additionally, the government faced criticism for considering cancelling a significant portion of the overdue and over-budget high-speed rail line, High Speed 2 (HS2), which was intended to connect London with the north of England. While the government has not confirmed its decision, there are widespread expectations that HS2 will be halted at Birmingham instead of reaching Manchester. Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham accused the Conservatives of treating people in the north as “second-class citizens” and claimed that the cancellation of HS2 would be remembered as a betrayal.
More detail via Washington Times here… ( Image via Washington Times )