Promotion from the conference?

Nearly one year ago I wrote about the upcoming 2017 budget, stating that it was hard to get excited about proposed policy changes when Brexit was going to get in the way of everything. I don’t think I was wrong in this (perhaps I was a little too focused on elections) but the key thing was not much has happened in the last year. Even supposedly headline policies like housing have, pretty much, fallen by the wayside in the last 12 months. Just look at the empty state of the social housing green paper or the lack of an official social care green paper.

Well, now that Brexit is truly rearing its ugly head you might think I’d offer the same advice. Oddly, I’m going to do something near the opposite. I actually believe conference season, if we listen hard enough, might offer some policy nuggets that whilst they may still struggle to get off the ground, may become the focus of discussion in the next year.

Put it like this- a number of ministers, shadow ministers or spokespeople are, as ever, going to be giving speeches, attending panels, speaking at fringe meetings, that sort of thing. So far, so normal. But unlike normal times, the uncertainty in the political system is about to come to a head.

Brexit, one way or another, is going to be decided in the next 12 months. I don’t mean to say it will be done and dusted, but that we’ll be on a course that will be ultimately impossible to reverse, past the point of no return and quite possibly staring into an abyss. Perhaps there will still be discussions to be had, but we won’t be at the point where it will be the be all and end all. There will be a policy space, which is likely to get filled, one way or another, with some other discussion.  We need to hope it is meaningful discussion.

I also think it is also fair to assume that, whoever it is, we will have a new Prime Minister in the next 12 months. Put it in your calendar and laugh at me if I’m wrong. I do try hard not to be party political in this blog. I’m interested first and foremost in policies. But what makes the political carnival of the next few weeks important is that those speaking at speeches, panel discussions and so on could be the next Prime Minister, Minister of State and so on. Sometimes these competitions can surprise you- who would have thought Theresa May would have been elected unopposed last time?

I don’t usually tell politicians things they don’t already know, so it is quite likely a number of ambitious souls are already planning what they are going to say. Perhaps they are trying to keep their policy powder dry. Perhaps they don’t really have any policies. But they will have to say something. In an eventual leadership battle (or election, if that’s the way it goes) they will have to come up with some policies- what they’ve just been talking about is likely to make it into the list. You’d expect that anyone who actually believes in a policy will also push for it.

Ministers obviously receive policy support in their roles, so you’d expect that the most worked through and therefore bullet proof policies they may suggest will come from there. But of course it is also worth watching out for people venturing over the lines into someone else’s turf. That not only indicates an ambition wider than their current role, but that they will engage on some policy detail and make an attempt to suggest their preferred way forward. It is a long way off a policy actually being delivered into law, but it is certainly the first step on the way towards that.

Perhaps now is the right time to declare an interest- I wrote my master’s dissertation on policy development through an election, so I’m on record with this being a topic that fascinates me. It is the interaction of the business of policy mixed with the cacophony of an election (whether a leader selection or a general election) that burnishes, alters and ultimately makes or breaks policies. Leaders feel somewhat committed to them. We can all names policies that have fallen by the wayside after an election, but they are often less likely to than other policies floated outside of one.

None of this means we will be able to select the policy that will pop out and become the focus. My hand and my heart yearn for it to be a sustainable answer to social care, but I can’t see how that will happen given the furore last time. But policy space is about to become available. Time in parliament may soon start appearing again after being confined almost wholly to Brexit for so long. A political vacuum will be filled and whoever fills it will need to say and do something. We should just hope it is something worthwhile.

If last year I was saying “don’t listen, none of it will happen” this year I think it is more “listen very carefully, anything could happen!”. That’s equally a warning and an opportunity, depending on what eventually come forward. But I’ll be listening to see what’s there- I hope you’ll join me.

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