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Conservative Party Conference: Can anything ruin the blue reign in Kent?

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It is the turn of the Tories to gather for the last party conference of the year but can true-blue Kent weather the political storms ahead?

Our political editor Paul Francis reports...

The Conservative Party conference is in Manchester this weekend. Picture PA/Stefan Rousseau
The Conservative Party conference is in Manchester this weekend. Picture PA/Stefan Rousseau

With all but one of the parliamentary seats in the county and a resounding victory in this year’s county council election, the Conservative party holds a firm grip on Kent.

No surprise there, some might say. The party has historically been the dominant force in the county - with the exception of the three successive elections Labour won between 1997 and 2005.

As party activists head to Manchester to round off the conference season, they are in buoyant mood.

Opinion polls place the party ahead of Labour and while Sir Keir Starmer gave a well-received speech that sent the party faithful away from Brighton with a spring in its step, it is unclear if he is managing to win over floating voters that are needed to secure a breakthrough in places like Kent.

But there are challenges ahead: the scrapping of the £20 uplift in universal credit, spiralling energy prices and the current fuel crisis could converge to form a perfect Autumn storm for the party.

"It’s not just the housing numbers; it’s the infrastructure..."

A potentially difficult spending review, which is likely to see the government claw back some of the huge sums spent on propping up the economy during Covid19 and the planned introduction of a social care levy - albeit not until 2023 - add to a politically awkward backdrop.

So far as Kent is concerned, the major faultline for the party is its housing reforms which have triggered a familiar refrain that the Garden of England is at risk of being concreted over.

The decision to install Michael Gove as housing minister was clearly motivated by the need to provide a more emollient figure to soothe the collective anxiety of loyal party members in the shires.

As one put it: “I think it is an issue that will come back to bite us. It’s not just the housing numbers; it’s the infrastructure, which doesn’t happen when it should and creates pressure on schools and GPs.”

A full scale revolt is, however, unlikely but party chiefs had their fingers burned when they failed to appreciate the strength of feeling on the issue in a parliamentary by-election in Chesham and Amersham. A rock solid Tory seat in southern England was seized by the Liberal Democrats in a spectacular victory, attributed to disaffection about unfettered housing growth.

Andrew Kennedy, who was elected to the county council for Malling North East in June, has acted as a Conservative agent for 30 years and has been a campaign director at eight general elections.

He says the party is in a better position than ordinarily would be the case.

“Given where we are in the electoral cycle I think the party is in good heart. There is certainly no sign of Sir Keir Starmer making any breakthrough. The consequences of Covid might mean tax increases and that never plays well but from what I have seen of the public’s view is that after spending so much on furlough, they understand it has to be paid for.”

There is always the vexed issue of housing but even on this, he believes the party nationally is listening to the concerns of councils.

“The problem with housing is that there is a lack of democratic control at council level. Most people accept that we do need more houses, especially for younger people. The problem is because there is a presumption in favour of development, local councils have very little control over where those houses go. And that is causing concern not just among Conservatives but the wider public.”

The Conservatives have dominated politics in Kent in recent years
The Conservatives have dominated politics in Kent in recent years

If there is one issue that does trouble party members it is the government’s levelling-up agenda and its focus on the so-called ‘red wall’ seats in the north of England.

Not because they disagree with investing in deprived areas but because they see it as diverting resources away from parts of the county that are equally deprived, particularly in coastal towns.

And there is disquiet that the government’s emphasis on its programme leaves it open to the charge that it is overlooking other issues. As one member put it: “The stock government answer to anything is ‘we’re levelling up’ - we can’t keep saying that for the next three years. It makes us look one dimensional.”

For all that, the Conservatives are arguably in a better position than the party envisaged it would be when it won the election in 2019.

Perhaps the only serious risk is that with a benign backdrop and a continuing lead in the polls, the party gets complacent and takes its traditional heartland for granted.

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