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Conservative party logo - Tory conference

The IOE&IT’s public affairs adviser, Grace Thompson, went to this year’s annual Conservative Party Conference. In this special report, she reports on how the at times fractious party conference went and her key trade takeaways.

“No one voted for this”. People in front of me stood up and peered around to see the Greenpeace protestors below. Booing ensued across the hall and a woman somewhere behind me yelled “go on Liz”, triggering applause.

Was this perhaps the best moment of the Prime Minister’s week? After the 45p policy U-turn, ministerial infighting throughout the week and intensive grilling by journalists, the conference hall united behind Liz Truss against protestors claiming that the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto hadn’t included fracking commitments.

Investment Zones – Consent, Action and Acceleration

Despite the divergence of policy on fracking, Liz Truss is sticking with many of the policy commitments of her predecessor Boris Johnson. For example, she is keen on the levelling-up agenda and sees “investment zones” as a way of achieving this.

In a nod to the host city of the conference, she referenced the Birmingham suburb of Bournville, developed in the 19th century to allow the expansion of the Cadbury’s chocolate factory and homes for workers, as an inspiration for what such zones around the country would deliver.

Simon Clarke, secretary of state for levelling-up, also extensively referenced investment zones in his speech earlier in the week. He said their development would be the “first major step” in levelling-up in a “Conservative way”. He added that investment zones were defined by three things: “consent, targeted and precise action, and pragmatic acceleration”.

“In Conversation” with Kemi

Wherever secretary of state for international trade Kemi Badenoch went at Conference, her fans seemed to follow. When she walked on stage to have her “In Conversation” session with journalist Liam Halligan, there was genuine warmth and support in the room.

Reassuring the hall that she and her team would be on the “front-foot” on trade policy, she showed an understanding that decisions on trade taken now will “have an impact on how we live our lives in the future”.

Making a point which was repeated later in the week in a different context, Badenoch said she was “trying to shift the Overton window of trade beyond trade deals”, adding that “trade deals are great, but they are not the only thing”.

Comparing them to a motorway, she said: “If cars aren’t going back and forth, you might as well not have built them. The going back and forth are the exports and investments.”

Moving Beyond Instagram Posts

I also sat in a fringe event on the digitalization of trade, listening to minister for trade policy, Conor Burns.

During the Q&A session, I asked the minister how he saw the digitalization of trade agenda sitting alongside the government’s wider net zero commitments. He responded that he had an “idiosyncratic” view on it and was already instructing officials to push back on the ambition to put net zero as the top priority of every trade agreement.

But he did emphasize that the “green agenda can be a key, key part of our trade ambitions” and added that there is a possibility for the UK to be a global leader in green export finance.

Export Fairs

An idea that also cropped up at several fringe events was Mr. Burns’s ambition to see widespread “export fairs”, similar to constituency business fairs. He noted MPs have a unique power to “convene” and that such fairs could support those trying to export and link them with the right support.

IOE&IT Director-General, Marco Forgione raised with Mr. Burns at an event on “International Trade in Uncertain Times” that MSMEs particularly needed support in trying to export and that government departments needed to work in sync on trade policy in relation to this and on building digital trade corridors.

Getting Britain Moving

There was a marked irony to the Conservative Party slogan of “Getting Britain Moving”. The day the conference finished was the day of a major train strike. Most attendees, including MPs, had headed home the night before to avoid taking coaches.

I had space to reflect on the Conference during my own lengthy coach ride home. I reached the conclusion that, although the government has experienced a very shaky start to its administration, there appears to be a commitment to be ambitious about international trade policy. Indeed, this could be one area where they will seek to demonstrate value in the months ahead.