Paul Groves argues that now is the time to put certainty and clarity back into construction’s relationship with politics

It had some similarities with the Night of the Long Knives that Harold Macmillan undertook in sacking seven Cabinet ministers in the early 1960s.

There were also a few echoes of Margaret Thatcher tear-stained (for her, mainly) departure from No.10 Downing Street in 1990.

But in truth, Boris Johnson brought his own unique brand of who-knows-what to events that saw senior Cabinet members and junior ministers quit, MPs withdraw their support for the Prime Minister and the unfortunate Michael Gove the only person sacked in a crazy 72 hours of resignations.

It was a confused and confusing period that in many ways has characterised the construction industry’s relationship with Mr Johnson’s Government since 2019.

Does the industry put projects on hold, or should we prepare for a totally new direction?

Paul Groves Paul Groves Editor of Specification

A lame duck

Thankfully, the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs has now produced a timetable that will lead to the appointment of a new party leader and Prime Minister.

But in the meantime, Mr Johnson will do his best impression of a lame duck in Downing Street and – he promises – not progress any major policy announcements, whilst those who hope to succeed him as Prime Minister go on a charm offensive to try and win support of their Conservative colleagues.

The curious nature of the contest is such that even though the electorate itself or key stakeholders like those in the construction industry will have absolutely no influence on the vote, the prime movers will still look to target the public, major organisations, manufacturers and business leaders in their quest to prove they are the right person for the job.

So, we can expect lots of soundbites, bold promises, teasing glimpses of potential new policies, but very little in the way substance over the coming weeks. Some might argue that the leadership contest is no different to the last three years under Mr Johnson – lots of loud boasts but not much in the way of clear direction or joined-up policy-making.

An opportunity for action

Indeed, as RIBA President Simon Allford said: “The news that Boris Johnson will step down as Prime Minister is an opportunity for the Conservative Party to take stock and refocus its priorities. 

“Amidst all the uncertainty, the climate crisis and its implications on the built environment - urgent action is required. This is an opportunity for a new leader to step up and take that action.  

“From improving the sustainability, safety and quality of our buildings to addressing the housing crisis, architects have a key role to play.  

“We will be reaching out to the new leader and their ministers as soon as they are in post - encouraging them to draw on the expertise in our industry, to help make our buildings and communities fit for the future.” 

Plenty on the to-do list for the successful leadership candidate, therefore, and whoever they pick for their first Cabinet.

A likely slowdown

The Construction Products Association hoped there would not be too much negative, short-term impact for the industry but had been advised by senior civil servants that some important policy discussions are likely to slow, given the absence of ministerial direction. 

“We hope that the government can right itself quickly, as there are pressing issues such as building safety, energy supply and security, sustainability initiatives, and the general inflationary and cost of living pressures impacting the economy and consumer sentiment, that require the government to be actively engaged,” added a spokesperson.

In terms of housing specifically, there were questions aplenty as regards the flagship Levelling Up agenda and what would happen now that both Mr Johnson had signalled his intention to resign and Mr Gove had lost his job.

What happens when you assume?

After Greg Clark MP was appointed as Mr Gove’s replacement, Rico Wojtulewicz, head of housing and planning for the House Builders Association (HBA) and NFB, said: “The Levelling Up Bill needs attention as it appears to be making assumptions that previous government policies have proved as flawed, such as on land prices going down, infrastructure first and localism enabling regional and national benefits.

“We therefore hope that the new minister will be more engaging with industry, so that the reality on the ground is heard and not assumed. The Secretary of State has a big job but our expertise and honesty is always available and we hope to meet him shortly.”

Stephen Phipson, Chief Executive of Make UK, also pointed out that the political turmoil comes at a time when the country faces considerable societal challenges in the short and long term.

“It is now vital that whoever succeeds him works in partnership with industry to develop a long-term economic vision which has an all-encompassing industrial strategy at its heart,” he said. “This is essential if we are to boost growth, drive innovation and create the high quality, highly skilled jobs the economy urgently needs.”

It’s probably certain!

But big question marks remain about a whole raft of programmes and policy pledges that Mr Johnson has trumpeted. It is unclear whether his successor will embrace them with such enthusiasm.

The identity of the new Prime Minister will undoubtedly determine the future of such initiatives – for example, if Rishi Sunak becomes PM and he actively supported schemes whilst he was Chancellor then there is a high degree of probability that they will continue forward with the new Government.

However, probably is not the same as certainly.

So, the difficulty for the industry in the coming weeks is do they put certain projects on hold in case they no longer fit into the new-look Government’s grand plan, do they persevere in the hope that continuity will be maintained, or should they be prepared for a sharp detour in a totally new direction?

There is already talk that some leading candidates for the PM’s job might not be so enthused about the net zero agenda as Mr Johnson. What that means for sustainability in construction is anyone’s guess.

The same is true for building safety and regulation, Mr Johnson’s desire to usher in a new era of industrial revolution with a solid green tinge and pretty much any major policy area that has a direct impact on our industry.

Welcome to limbo, where a lame duck Prime Minister will be our guide until September.

Confused? You should be.

Paul Groves is editor of Specification magazine