Desperately seeking ideas at the Conservative conference

COMMENT It is a strange old world that I inhabit. I dip into many pools (is it manic curiosity or licensed insanity?). And I have just spent three days at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.

You’ll have seen the reports. I guess it is hardly a surprise that the party faithful are anxious and unhappy. Certainly attendance numbers were well down on last year. But a brave face was being put on it. One venerable council leader said to me: “It isn’t as bad as I was expecting.” And there was a sense of, at least, grim survival.

The Conservatives may have (technically) won the election, but the Labour Party is in so much better spirts (with some justification). There is an acute and widespread understanding among Tories that they have truly lost the millennial generation (the average age of a party member is now 71 apparently; and the average age at which ordinary folk begin voting Tory has slipped from 34 to 47) and that they need to change direction. And change rather radically.

So…the Tories are now simply desperate for new ideas. And nowhere more so than in housing, particularly on the supply side. There are some salutary statistics floating about that PRS tenants (less likely to register to vote in the first instance) voted 54% Labour in June. And there is now a widespread understanding among Conservative rank-and-file (not just the thinkers) that you cannot expect people to be capitalists if they don’t have any capital. So they are ever more frantic to increase home ownership.

And there was a lot of debate on the fringe about how to drastically stimulate supply. Incidentally, there was a huge amount of criticism among the cognoscenti of the new £10bn round of Help to Buy announced by Philip Hammond at the start of the week, which is of course a demand-side measure and  was variously described (totally correctly) as “economically illiterate” and “nakedly opportunistic”. But the policy wonks are struggling to find a neat equivalent for a supply-side fiscal instrument that could be readily communicated to the general public.

As I left them to it yesterday afternoon, our wondrous Adam Challis of JLL and Susan Emmett of the Policy Exchange (they were lucky to get her from Savills) were trying to impart some sense. But we are still some way off solving the housing crisis. Not least because, as Adam so eloquently points out, political cycles tend to be considerably shorter than most build programmes.

I did see the queue to get into the hall for Boris’s speech. I did not join it. Surely his time has gone? Everyone seems very frothy about Boris positioning himself, but the way the party leadership eection rules work, he would always need the support of his parliamentary colleagues first and foremost; and none of them trust him (or are they desperate enough to get over themselves?). So there is still no clear way through.

I do not think the PM can pull the morale around in her speech today (well, it would be a miracle if she could, frankly) but they still have no-one else. Although be aware that clever money is currently on Michael Fallon to succeed her. I jest not. And by Christmas. Does he understand the housing market, I wonder?

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