Blog: Up for grabs

The UK’s infrastructure trajectory had looked secure for another few years at least, but the change of leader could put everything back up in the air, writes Paul Jarvis

When Boris Johnson led his party to a resounding victory in the General Election of 2019, it looked like some stability was at last returning to British politics after the tumultuous years following the Brexit vote, offering the potential for a platform on which a long-term infrastructure strategy could be laid out.

Levelling up and the drive to Net Zero were Johnson’s flagship policies once he had ‘got Brexit done’, and were meant to spearhead the ‘global Britain’ agenda now that the country stood outside the EU.

Both policies have had huge implications for the infrastructure industry and the private sector’s role in helping deliver new projects across the country. Both became even more important following the Covid-19 pandemic, with Johnson’s administration seeing them as ways to help drive the economy out of its post-lockdown woes.

However, the series of so-called party-gate revelations, and Number 10 continually being caught out over what it knew and when - not only about lockdown parties, but also (and, eventually, fatally) about allegations of sexual misconduct against a whip - have put paid to Johnson and raised serious questions about the future of those policies.

After all, it is common for a new leader to want to define themselves as different to their predecessor - no matter how successful that previous incumbent has been. And with Net Zero and Levelling up having both been the two policies after Brexit to be most closely associated with Johnson’s premiership, there will be some serious concerns over how these will fare under a new leader.

So what have the contenders said on these crucial subjects? In truth, not a great deal. While all candidates have made some references to improving the economy for everyone and similarly bland statements, there has been little content on what that means, and whether significant investment in economically disadvantaged areas will be on the cards.

Many of the initial runners, including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, have pledged tax cuts as an immediate step to help tackle the cost of living crisis. A low tax environment would realistically only be compatible with a major programme of regeneration if there was some plan to harness private sector investment in a greater way than at present.

Former Chancellor Rishi Sunak has pledged to be a more Thatcherite leader - something that has raised concerns for those in more deprived parts of the country that this means the commitment to Levelling up would be abandoned under his leadership. 

Labour’s Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, argued in an interview with Sky News that the prospect of following Margaret Thatcher’s economic model for the country would result in Levelling up being “dead”. While Burnham obviously has his own political motivations, the comments speak to wider concerns that Sunak would be reluctant to plough more money from an already depleted Treasury into different parts of the country.

That said, the Conservatives know that their majority in 2019 was in no small part thanks to Labour voters in the North turning blue - so a failure to repay those votes with tangible improvements could be hugely costly. 

Indeed, this was a point made by the surprise package of the campaign, trade minister Penny Mordaunt. During her campaign launch, she responded to questioning about potentially heading to the polls to seek a fresh mandate after becoming prime minister by insisting that the Conservative Party already has a strong mandate. She argued that people want to see the party deliver on its election promises, suggesting greater focus on seeing through commitments such as Levelling up.

Green question

It is perhaps a little clearer where the green agenda sits within candidates' list of priorities - not least because most have spoken directly about the topic.

The candidates here have fallen into two categories: those who have committed to keeping the Net Zero target (frontrunners Sunak, Mordaunt and Truss); and those that would look to delay or change the target in response to current economic conditions (Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch).Tom Tugendhat, meanwhile, backtracked on initial suggestions he too would look to delay the 2050 target date for Net Zero, although added there was not yet a path to reach that commitment.

While it might be easy to dismiss the views of those lower down the order in terms of votes from the first few rounds, their approach is worth consideration because it exposes a rift in the party. Braverman, Badenoch and Tugendhat accounted for 30% of the MPs’ votes in the second ballot, suggesting nearly a third of Conservative MPs would be comfortable with the current Net Zero programme being watered down.

When you add in the fact that Truss (who took 17.9% of the vote) has previously aligned with climate sceptics, there will no doubt be concern among the industry over how far any new prime minister will be allowed to go by the party they lead. Johnson had the success of a landslide election victory to fall back on whenever policy issues might have been raised; the new leader won’t, at least at first.

Lord (Zac) Goldsmith, minister for the international environment, and Chris Skidmore, chairman of parliament’s all-party group on the environment, wrote a joint article in the Daily Telegraph during the contest, suggesting that private investment is only going one way, and to move away from the efforts to cut carbon would be “electoral suicide”.

Mordaunt appears to back this approach, and has pledged to introduce a series of reforms aimed at creating new ‘green jobs’ that will help the country transition to a low carbon economy.

Sunak has often been considered a more reluctant supporter of Johnson’s green dreams and his time at the Treasury included calls for greater support of the North Sea oil industry. Nonetheless, during his campaign he has signed up to the Conservative Environment Pledge, as well as backing Net Zero by 2050.

Whoever wins the race to become the new Conservative leader, and therefore prime minister, will clearly face some significant decisions on the future direction of the country’s infrastructure policy. Without the personal mandate of a major election victory behind them, policy conflicts between different factions of the party may well become more prominent.

Just when it looked like the market was in a position to plan for the long term, the UK might be facing another period of uncertainty and policy upheaval. Plus ça change!