Boris Johnson has concluded the Conservative Party conference in Manchester with a speech that promises “levelling up” and addressing a "long-term structural weakness" in the economy. However, in a week that will see cuts to Universal Credit, and with Tory actions being protested outside the venue, the party may have to do more to assure the public that they have their best interests at heart.
In his closing keynote speech the prime minister responded to post-Brexit economy concerns by promising controlled immigration and investment would be the government’s focus moving forward. "That's the direction in which the country is going now - towards a high-wage, high-skilled, high-productivity and, yes, thereby a low-tax economy. That is what the people of this country need and deserve," he said. However, in light of today’s cut to Universal Credit and shortages in jobs and supplies across the country, these promises may seem somewhat vague, and not satisfy those who need the government’s help at present.
Justice secretary Dominic Raab has come under fire after saying at the conference that he will overhaul the Human Rights Act in a bid to supposedly bring more “common sense” to the justice system. Campaign groups have heavily criticised these plans, with Amnesty International UK’s CEO Sacha Deshmukh stating: “Politicians should not be removing the rights of ordinary people with the stroke of a pen, whilst giving evermore powers to the police and protecting members of the establishment from proper scrutiny.”
Labour’s justice secretary David Lammy also criticised Raab’s plans, arguing that “after 11 years of Tory Government, court backlogs have reached record levels, violence and self-harm in prisons have soared, rape convictions have plummeted, and many women have lost confidence in the criminal justice system […] Yet instead of addressing any of these problems, the new Justice Secretary chose to focus on vague threats to take away ordinary people’s rights.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced plans to commit over £500million in funds to help people back into employment. This announcement follows the cut to the £20 increase to Universal Credit that had been introduced to help claimants through the Covid pandemic, which took effect today. The cut is predicted to have an incredibly detrimental impact on thousands of people, along with the rise to National Insurance tax, set to increase in April 2022. Sunak responded to criticisms of raising taxes by saying: “whilst I know tax rises are unpopular – some will even say un-Conservative – I’ll tell you what is un-Conservative: unfunded pledges, reckless borrowing and soaring debt.”
Statements such as this may seem somewhat hollow when reportedly the Conservative party have consistently borrowed more and repaid less than Labour, and have more than doubled the national debt since they came into power in 2010, increasing the national debt more than every Labour government combined.
Also at the conference, Priti Patel set out plans to target protesters further as part of the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill currently going through the government. The plans include increasing the maximum sentence for disruption of a motorway and seem to focus on recent protests by Insulate Britain, which saw climate activists blocking the M1, M4, and M25. Patel referred to these protests as “some of the most self-defeating environmental protests this country has ever seen." She added that, "freedom to protest is a fundamental right our party will forever fight to uphold. But it must be within the law".
However, lawyers have warned the government that the policing bill will in fact “clearly violate international human rights standards, and they constitute a savage attack on the right to peaceful assembly”. At the same conference, two Windrush campaigners, Julia Davidson and Anthony Brown had their access to the event restricted, despite both having accreditation which had cost them £225 each, as Boris Johnson’s adviser Myles Stacey said there were concerns that they might protest at the venue.
Regarding Patel’s comments, an activist from Insulate Britain spoke to BBC News, saying, "we have tried lobbying, we have tried targeting political leaders, government departments, people have been doing this for two, three, four, five decades, without any success at all […] We know through history that disruptive direct actions work. The government are (sic) forcing our hand because they are not taking the biggest threat to humanity seriously."
Outside of ministers’ statements there has still been more unrest at the conference, with many people gathering outside the event to chant ‘Tories Out’ and protest against the cut to Universal Credit, the rise in National Insurance tax, and the Northern Ireland protocol. The Conservatives have also been criticised for allowing transphobic campaign group LGB Alliance into the event after Labour declined to host the group at their conference last month.