Despondent mood at Conservative conference as businesses decide where best to engage

The mood of the Conservative party conference stands in direct contrast to last week's Labour conference in Brighton.

Business has opportunities to engage with the government despite the depressing mood at conference, says Emma Haselhurst
Business has opportunities to engage with the government despite the depressing mood at conference, says Emma Haselhurst

The kindest words used to describe the atmosphere have been ‘depressing’ and ‘flat’, as the Conservatives struggle to regain momentum (pun intended) after the June election.

Some might start to question whether it’s worth investing time and energy in a government that might not be standing in a year’s time. Shouldn’t we just be directing all efforts towards Labour?

To answer 'yes' to this question is to severely misunderstand the Conservatives’ genuine fear of a Corbyn government, and therefore the efforts that will be made to hold this administration together for as long as possible.

The Government still has a domestic legislative agenda it’s promised to implement, and with much of the civil service consumed by Brexit, businesses have a role to play in helping to flesh out the policy detail.

The Industrial Strategy is clearly here to stay as one of the major planks of domestic policy, particularly in relation to that intractable problem: productivity.

But it was clear from the lack of detail coming from the debates in Manchester that substantive solutions are still lacking.

The Government has to show progress before the end of the year, when it publishes its white paper, and in order to do that it will need companies to come forward with workable ideas via sector deals.

Engaging constructively with government should be a major area of focus for businesses over the months ahead.

Unsurprisingly for a Conservative conference, devolution featured heavily, and was one of the few areas where the party had a spring in its step due to its recent mayoral successes.

Mayoralties pose a major opportunity for businesses in sectors such as skills, housing and transport.

In a world where the longevity of the national government is uncertain, businesses could do worse than focus their efforts on the Mayors and their teams.

And of course we can’t ignore Brexit, which was as omnipresent as Boris. While many businesses continue to feel exasperated about the lack of progress and certainty, they should also be actively scenario-planning, particularly in preparing for a ‘no deal’ outcome.

Having a strong Brussels presence is now essential for any consultancy helping clients to prepare effectively for the next 18 months.

For a little light relief, it’s always fun at conference to see who's putting themselves out there for the ‘rising star’ label.

James Cleverley has already been refreshingly honest about his ambitions. Tom Tugendhat is another who is being talked up.

George Freeman, fresh from his big tent in Berkshire, has impressed many with his calls for continued modernisation and a positive vision.

In such a tumultuous time for UK public affairs, it’s as important for companies to be engaging the newer thinkers as it is Cabinet ministers.

And finally, Ruth Davidson's star turn left many businesses thinking about what more they could do in Scotland.

Could a Conservative conference in Edinburgh be all that far away?

Emma Haselhurst is a managing director in the public affairs team at Teneo Blue Rubicon

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