One does not need to be a seasoned political observer to conclude that this year’s Conservative Party Conference was comparatively uneventful in comparison to those of recent years, at least in terms of policy announcements. That said, it was the first full regrouping of the Conservative Party since it secured its thumping 80-seat majority in December 2019, and the first opportunity for the temperature to be taken of a party with a considerably different constituency base since it last congregated in person. Was there a unique place in all this for health and the Life Sciences?
There was certainly an interesting observation to be drawn about the place of health and social care in the Government’s plans to raise national insurance contributions, an issue that was widely expected to dominate the conference agenda. In reality, that debate was virtually absent. This can be in part explained by ministers spinning two narratives at once – one promising to return to a lower-tax model as soon as possible, the other implying that it would be ‘immoral’ not to raise taxes now and saddle future generations with debt – to quell both sides of the debate. But a more conspicuous explanation for why the party faithful have broadly acquiesced to national insurance hikes is surely that they are hypothecated for the NHS and social care, both of which have been objects of heightened public and political reverence during the pandemic, but whose post-pandemic challenges are now widely recognised. This is certainly the feeling I took away from party members at conference.
Health, then, seems to be a linchpin upon which the Conservative Party is comfortable to justify manoeuvres – temporary or otherwise – away from its reputation as a party of low taxation, to a place where it is comfortable presenting itself to the electorate as a party of higher tax and spend. The Health Secretary reinforced this position in his own headline remarks at conference, promising to prioritise funding for the NHS in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic whilst caveating that with an ambitious programme of reform. This is a high-risk strategy. If a self-identified low-tax party raises taxes, but only for the very exceptional case of improving and reforming the NHS, it risks being found wanting if no discernible benefits are delivered in time for the next election. With the Health and Care Bill currently before Parliament, a health and social care leadership review in train, and white papers on integration and social care set for later in the year, there are ample opportunities for the Conservative Party to realise this objective. Equally, these could all be opportunities where they fall short. Only time will tell.
A party that has in the past been accused of viewing the Life Sciences as an ‘also-ran’ against industries deemed more electorally important, now clearly sees its success as a means of winning political attention and votes.
The NHS was not the only object of laudation at conference. The Government’s early support for the development of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics was also extolled by almost every Conservative MP or minister appearing on the fringe or main stage. It might seem obvious, or perhaps lazy to remark on this given the plethora of positive coverage the vaccine rollout has enjoyed in the UK. I think there is a deeper significance. Whilst the Conservatives have afforded long-term strategies to the Life Sciences, such as the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy and the Life Sciences Vision, rarely has the industry commanded the same level of political, media and electoral attention as the likes of automotive or steel. Maggie Throup, the newly appointed vaccines ministers, seemed sympathetic to this view at a fringe event, comparing the Life Sciences to a ‘sleeping giant’ whose full potential had not yet been realised.
It appears that COVID-19 might be turning this trend on its head. There was no end to the celebration of UK Life Sciences at this conference, and ministers were vocal about their continued appetite for further collaborations with industry that result in demonstrable success stories. There was also mention of the contribution Life Sciences could make to the Conservatives’ levelling-up agenda, helping to spread high-skilled and high-wage jobs more equitably throughout the country. And even the warm-up event for the Prime Minister’s main address, usually reserved for a barnstorming speech from a party icon like Ruth Davidson or Geoffrey Cox, was an ‘in conversation’ event at which Nadhim Zahawi and Maggie Throup reflected on and celebrated the UK’s recent successes in vaccine development and deployment. In short, a party that has in the past been accused of viewing the Life Sciences as an ‘also-ran’ against industries deemed more electorally important, now clearly sees its success as a means of winning political attention and votes. Life Sciences companies should take note and seize upon the opportunities this new-found political impetus presents, tailoring their messaging and offers in ways that maximise resonance with the stated ambitions of ministers.