Time to double-down on digital infrastructure

Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications and is a Parliamentary Researcher

“In these exceptional times, the most precious commodity is confidence. Government has a golden opportunity with the National Infrastructure Strategy to set out an ambitious but deliverable plan for the nation’s economic infrastructure.”  

James Heath, National Infrastructure Commission CEO, commenting earlier this month is right. The coronavirus pandemic has not only presented the Government with a “golden opportunity” to deliver on its ambitious commitment to delivering gigabit-capable broadband across the country by 2025 and 5G by 2027, but it has brought the unprecedented need to deliver on it.  

By focusing on these core manifesto promises, the Government would do well to use the National Infrastructure Strategy later this autumn to double-down on its efforts to deliver the urgent digital infrastructure improvements needed across the UK. This renewed effort would play an instrumental role in supporting the economic recovery of the UK, and for the worst affected regions such as the North, Yorkshire and the Midlands.   

Covid-19 and the accelerated demand for “levelling-up”  

Even before the pandemic and the shift to working-from-home, improving digital connectivity in the North and the Midlands was crucial to the Government’s chances of “levelling-up” the country. 

There is a host of evidence – not least in the articles published by Digital Tories – which shows the direct benefits that would be felt by regions across the UK from the delivery of improved digital connectivity. Enhanced levels of productivity, greater economic activity and more employment opportunities are just three. 

Furthermore, enhanced digital connectivity delivers wider socio-economic benefits too, such as the opportunity for remote healthcare services, real-time data sharing and a greater scope for the use of artificial intelligence. However, for some parts of the country, simply getting decent broadband coverage was a challenge throughout the lockdown.  

Several ‘Blue Collar Conservative’ MPs have called on the Government to scrap its plans for HS2 (considering the pandemic) and have made the case that in order to truly deliver on the levelling-up agenda, delivering high speed broadband should take precedence.  

Figures from the New Economics Foundation show that 40 percent of HS2’s benefits would flow to workers commuting to London, with only 18-10 percent going to workers in the North and the Midlands. The Government should consider re-prioritising the money, energy and attention from projects like HS2 and spend it on speeding up the delivery of digital infrastructure.  

Supporting economic recovery 

Delivering on its ambitious targets for the rollout of 5G and gigabit-capable broadband would be a great way for the Government to support the UK’s economic recovery; delivering economic output, capital investment and greater job opportunities are some of the benefits that would be materialised across the whole country.   

A recent report published by the Centre for Policy Studies found that a faster rollout of 5G infrastructure “would help deliver a quicker and stronger economic recovery for the UK.” The report supports the argument that the delivery of 5G across the country would significantly help the UK’s economic recovery, by generating £34.1bn in economic output if the Government meets its ambitious target of doing so by 2027. This is more pronounced in the long-term, whereby the access to digital services and reliable connectivity – that has been essential to the country’s response to Covid-19 – will be integral to the resilience, economic security and productivity of our four regions.  

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs; the characteristics of large digital infrastructure projects – such as their long-term nature, their complexity and often their interdependence – means the rollout of 5G and of gigabit-capable broadband offer significant opportunities for job creation in the face of record unemployment. A report by WPI Economics estimates that the rollout of 5G will create over 600,000 jobs in the UK by 2030, with potentially even greater productivity benefits being materialised in the most deprived parts of the United Kingdom.  

The challenges facing the country are epic in scale; the Government’s interventions and policy measures to support the economy have been historic in nature. It is therefore reasonable to call for an unprecedented and unwavering focus on digital infrastructure delivery. While there is a myriad of technical, regulatory and political reasons behind the delays to the rollout of 5G and gigabit-capable broadband, the coronavirus pandemic should not, and cannot be one of them. 

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us. 

This piece was written for Digital Tories

Patience: a virtue the Tories are yet to find

Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications and is a Parliamentary Researcher

The suggestion that 2021 should mark the end of the road for Boris Johnson’s premiership has been gaining oxygen in Tory circles. Some claim that the Prime Minister has lost his way, “run out of steam” and even been fundamentally changed by his near-death experience. While the pandemic has undoubtedly steered him along a different path to the one both he and the Party could ever have expected in December 2019, any attempt to change the Leader next year would be a short-sighted move. Such an act would not only be the most futile use of the Party’s political capital, but an embarrassment to Conservative voters – old and new – across the country. Tories must find patience.

The bigger picture

Firstly, we must look at the bigger picture. The nation is exhausted; exhausted by months of facing the endless threat of a deadly virus and all the subsequent safety restrictions, cancelled holidays, missed family gatherings and the normality of life.

As things stand, more than half a million young people in the UK are now unemployed. The economy is experiencing its deepest ever recession. Economic forecasts for 2021 look even gloomier, with the Bank of England expecting rates of unemployment to rise to 8.2 per cent and predicting it will take over two years for the country’s finances to get anywhere near their pre-Covid levels.

Clearly, there are bigger issues facing the country than inane discussions over party leadership. We should certainly expect the electorate to be unforgiving of any such party who squandered a second of its time in government, especially right now and on such a self-indulgent exercise as this.

Levelling-up agenda

Secondly, the Party must not forget why the Tories were returned to power in 2019 for a fourth successive time, with their largest majority since 1987. The PM’s promise of defeating Jeremy Corbyn, “getting Brexit done” and levelling-up the country was one that not only Conservative voters found compelling, but one that many never-before Tory voters believed in, and, indeed, placed their trust in.

These formerly “red-wall” seats across the north and Midlands were attracted to his ambitious levelling-up agenda, including his promise of delivering UK-wide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025, improving transport connectivity across the country and delivering jobs, opportunities and better infrastructure in these regions too often left-behind.

Levelling-up the country is a long-term ambition for the country and the Party must give him the time to deliver on this. If successful, the Conservatives could cement this broader voter base for decades to come, locking the Labour Party out of government indefinitely. Alternatively, a change in party leadership now, without having delivered on these existing promises, would be — and I use this word reluctantly — a betrayal of the trust placed in them by voters at the 2019 election. The Party must let him finish what he has started.

Beyond the bubble

Finally, the Westminster bubble has been and is guilty of overlooking the PM’s much broader appeal. The “bumbling buffoon” act that so many dismissed Johnson for at every opportunity over the last four years is precisely why he appeals to the great British public. He is quite different.

Some argue that recent polling shows support among the public for the PM is waning and therefore the Party should begin to look for his replacement. However, the Conservatives remain head to head with Labour in the polls, and any effort to change the party leadership in 2021 would only further hinder their ability to deliver on its promises, paving the way for an increasingly popular Sir Keir.

A change of party leadership in 2021 would be an extremely short-sighted move. There’s no question that Boris Johnson has not had the start to his premiership that he, nor anyone for that matter, would have expected nor wanted. However, if we should learn anything from the events of the last four years, it is that four years is a very long time in politics. The electorate has placed its trust once again in the Conservatives to deliver real change across the UK. The Conservative Party owes it to the country to be patient with the Prime Minister, forget any self-indulgent leadership contest and give him the time to deliver.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for this website.