From the Lobby: Party conference special

From the Lobby: Party conference special

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From Brexit battles to the future of Prime Minister Theresa May, IPSE’s director of policy Simon McVicker surveys the state of politics

It’s September, and silly season is (we hope) finally at an end. Time to put Big Ben blubbing and Venezuelan vacillations to one side and get back to real politics. Parliament is back in session, Brexit negotiations are in full swing (or not, depending on what you believe), and we’re barrelling headlong into conference season. And as our guest writers discuss, tensions will be simmering at both of the major party conferences, boiling over into the bars and backrooms of Brighton and Manchester.

Top of the list of tensions is the future of Theresa May. Now she has been forced to oust her old advisors, the gruesome twosome Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s shiny new team – including former BBC Daily Politics editor Robbie Gibb – has put her in a much stronger position than two months ago. But then, that’s not saying much. And Britain’s ‘weak and wobbly’ Prime Minister has only eroded her crumbling power base further by claiming that she’s here ‘for the long term’. Polls of Conservative Party members say otherwise…

But the biggest hurdle for May at the moment (aside from a certain era-defining, economyshattering constitutional change on the horizon), is the urgent need for a cabinet reshuffle. One of the many reasons May called her catastrophic snap election was that she needed the authority to reshuffle her recalcitrant cabinet.

Instead of Javid or Johnson in the firing line, however, it’s now May herself. Although at the moment, May is using the threat of a reshuffle to keep her rebellious cabinet in line, at some point she is going to have to fire the gun and cast her enemies out. Then, not only will the backbenches be filled with rancorous big beasts hungry for revenge; she will also have lost one of her only levers on power.

Talking of levers, what about Jeremy “almost vegan” Corbyn, the great terror of the Conservatives doing more than anything else to keep May in power? Well, for one thing, the Labour conference will be much smoother sailing than he or anyone imagined.

Labour MPs have almost no appetite for open dissent and insurrection now they have scented power. But even the possibility of power can’t quite put the lid on the party’s simmering tensions, and the challenge for Corbyn and Labour will be maintaining their uncharacteristic veneer of unity in the months ahead.

That may prove no small feat when the party’s fudged stance on Brexit comes under real scrutiny. And with Chuka Umunna and the new Labour campaign for the single market taking aim at Corbyn’s eurosceptic tendencies, there may be trouble ahead – sooner than many expect.

Now the big question: what does all this mean for the self-employed? Well, although May’s new team are hunkered down and holding the fort, it will be a long time before they’re confident enough to put their heads over the parapet and actually launch new policies. And with two major threats – Brexit and the massing forces of Jeremy Corbyn – on the horizon, it’s unlikely Team Theresa will be keen to cause controversy any time soon.

So even though May tied her ‘relaunch’ to the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices, her weakened government now has neither the will nor the strength to actually implement any of its recommendations. And with the review’s talk of the need to ‘address the disparity between the level of tax applied to employed and self-employed labour’, perhaps that’s a relief for the UK’s freelance community.

However, there is no room for complacency. With confirmation of the government caving in to pressure and lifting the cap on public sector salaries (not to mention its other extensive public expenditure commitments in the NHS and elsewhere), it may soon be in urgent need of easy money. So there is still some risk that the chancellor, Philip Hammond, might circle back on the self-employed, seeing them as easy targets for quick funds.

And if Spreadsheet Phil does indeed turn his attention to the self-employed again, there are two key times he’s likely to do it: after consultations on the Taylor Review and, of course, in his Autumn Budget. Now, after his humiliating u-turn in March, it’s extremely unlikely the chancellor will want to directly increase NICs for the selfemployed again. It was a major embarrassment for a majority government: for a minority government, such controversy could prove fatal. Instead, there are two slightly less outlandish possibilities.

First, though unlikely, there is some chance Hammond may try and extend the disastrous changes to IR35 in the public sector to the private sector. Because, despite a growing mountain of evidence that switching the decision about IR35 status from contractors to public sector bodies has been a monumental catastrophe, HMRC have been presenting it as something of a success. Extending these changes to the private sector would be even more of a disaster, and IPSE will be doing everything it can to prevent this.

The other possibility is a bit more positive. Not many people remember now, but when Hammond first turned his attention to the growing self-employed sector, many freelancers were optimistic because of his talk of thorough consultation. The idea, it appeared, was to base changes on the views and needs of real selfemployed people. In the end this was brushed aside in favour of a heavy handed NICs rate rise. But maybe, just maybe, this is the approach that will now be taken. It’s certainly the approach that should be taken. Perhaps with a view to providing real support to the self-employed through the private sector – if not through expensive government initiatives.

Whatever happens in the course of this parliament, IPSE will be working hard to represent the interests of the UK’s freelance and self-employed community, ensuring they get the recognition they deserve not just in government but across the political landscape.