Infrastructure gets strategic focus from former Labour Peer

The Conservative Party arrived in Manchester for their first conference under a majority Conservative Government in eighteen years. Given the long wait and the unexpected nature of the victory in May, this year's conference was always likely to be an opportunity for celebration amongst the party faithful. Add to that the (arguably) favourable outcome of the Labour leadership election and you can understand the high spirits of party members; at least once they had passed through the hordes of protesters and were safely inside the conference secure zone.

Despite the apparently calm waters the Conservatives currently find themselves in, there was still plenty to keep delegates interested, with the upcoming EU referendum and leadership rivalry between the Chancellor and Mayor of London two of the more obvious storm clouds on the horizon. Both issues received a lot of attention at the conference fringe events and in the bar of the Midland hotel.

For those of us with an energy interest it was a further opportunity to see what Conservative energy policy would look like in a post-Coalition world, after a summer which has seen criticism levelled at the Government from the renewables lobby for the changes to support for wind and solar. There was an agreement amongst many at the conference that there is a vacuum in energy policy which is still waiting to be filled now many of the policies of the Coalition have been swept away. Investors waiting for a clear signal of the Government's direction are likely to be kept waiting until the Autumn spending review, as the Secretary of State's speech gave little away beyond championing the consumer and placing decarbonisation on a more secure financial footing.

One notable outcome from the conference was the announcement that former Labour Peer Andrew Adonis will chair a new National Infrastructure Commission to independently assess the long term needs of the UK and the infrastructure that underpins economic growth. The Commission has the potential to make an important contribution to the debate around the future of energy networks, and could look at everything from the potential of smart grids and the smart meter roll out to energy efficiency, demand side response and integrating low carbon generation onto the grid. The energy industry has been crying out for an independent body to take a long term view of energy policy which is immune from the short termism of Government thinking. The National Infrastructure Commission is therefore very welcome news. The appointment of Andrew Adonis represents something of a coup for the Conservative Party, as he is generally considered to be one of the most eminent thinkers of Labour's years in Government and his defection will do nothing to quell the fears of many in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.

The conference came to a close on Wednesday with a speech from the Prime Minister which many feel represented his attempt to position the Conservatives firmly on the centre ground which has been vacated by Labour, and deliver another election victory in five years time. Achieving that against the background of an EU referendum and a Parliamentary majority of 16 will undoubtedly be far from straightforward. But at the moment spirits remain high, and not even the predictable Manchester downpours could dampen the mood.


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