Autumn brings a sense of foreboding for public affairs and political comms people

First it was non-essential shops, then restaurants, bars and sports stadiums, as nature began to heal and venues were able to reopen after the lifting of restrictions, but this autumn - to the excitement of political wonks - it will be the turn of party conferences, at least in part.

Tensions between the Treasury and  No. 10 are likely as politics returns closer  to normal, warns Paddy Hennessey
Tensions between the Treasury and No. 10 are likely as politics returns closer to normal, warns Paddy Hennessey

While the Liberal Democrats’ conference was virtual, Labour is meeting in person in Brighton this week and the Conservatives promise a ‘hybrid’ conference in Manchester.

This hybrid nature of the Tory event, the fact the pandemic is still not over, and the shadow of the West’s chaotic and ignominious retreat from Afghanistan mean that the Manchester conference is likely to be less triumphalist than a party with a healthy 80+ majority might expect in normal times.

A similar sense of foreboding – with a difficult autumn and winter looming – has begun to be felt among Tory MPs, commentators and public affairs professionals. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, will unveil a long overdue Comprehensive Spending Review as well as an Autumn Budget. He must also square the circle between the competing demands of a post-pandemic NHS, the move to net-zero carbon and the PM’s demand for reality to match the rhetoric behind ‘levelling up’ and the harsh facts of dwindling national coffers, the end of the furlough scheme and uncertainty as to the speed and strength of economic recovery.

Tensions between the parsimonious Treasury and a No. 10 keen to splash the cash are likely be a sombre backdrop as politics returns closer to normal – something the Opposition will no doubt exploit alongside criticism of lobbying activities by former Tory ministers which is generating calls for legislative reform to build back confidence in the public affairs industry.

Further tension, which politicians and those in public affairs will keep firmly in mind, is likely between the drive for green growth and jobs and consumers’ willingness to pay more to save the planet. At the COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow the Government hopes a deal can be reached to get richer countries to spend hundreds of billions more on ‘climate finance’ schemes to help poorer nations.

This presents a massive opportunity for the private sector to create new green jobs, but ministers, and local authorities, will be sweating over public willingness to meet extra costs by paying higher prices as well as more taxes on everything from disposable nappies to higher-polluting vehicles.

For Labour, Keir Starmer’s challenge is to persuade the public that his party has changed and is worthy of its trust before he can think about launching a serious challenge to the Tory majority. His party conference speech is crucial, while a decent result on the conference floor would be winning a likely showdown over the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into Labour antisemitism.

Paddy Hennessy is a senior adviser at London Communications Agency and former director of comms for the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan

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