In our first Conservative Conference blog we highlighted three things the Tories would be trying to achieve over the course of four days. Namely, to not tear itself apart over Brexit; to show it has domestic policies that can cut home with the electorate; and for Theresa May herself to reassert control. The latter point was against a backdrop of increasing talk of leadership challenges and with potential challengers beginning to jockey for position should a vacancy become available.
How did these factors ultimately pan out?
Surprisingly, despite a robust intervention from Boris Johnson and numerous fringe events calling for May to ‘chuck Chequers,’ the peace seems to largely have held. Admittedly, Brexit dominated the conference fringe and the talk in the bars. The majority of the membership had grumbles, to be sure, and most would prefer a more robust negotiating position with a shift towards the so-called Canada+ model. Johnson was cheered to the rafters after his speech too. Yet, that Johnsonian intervention may have actually helped the PM, with maybe the majority of members thinking he had overstepped the mark and that May should be given the respect and time to get on with the job. His attack was certainly bullish and that may have tainted his message. The PM’s own speech was well-received (more on that later), even the sections on Brexit. At the end of the Conference, May has won herself the time to continue to try to deliver Brexit the way that she seemingly prefers. Whether she maintains that position over the coming weeks remains to be seen. The malcontents will not rest, that’s for sure.
In terms of policy, as already noted Brexit has dominated. Boris Johnson’s speech stole the show from Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, and cut into CCHQ’s media grid. There were numerous fringes on housing and planning, probably the most numerous after Brexit, and several around social care, industry, infrastructure and technology.
However, none of these issues really cut through from the fringe in the way they had in previous years, especially with housing. Attendance in the main conference hall was sparse – to say the least – and none of the Cabinet really made a splash with policy announcements during their own set-piece speeches. It was left until the last day, with the PM hoarding as many policy announcement goodies as she could for her own speech, for any domestic policies of any substance to emerge. For example, eye-catching promises on housing/removing the cap on councils being able to borrow to build homes. She also reverted to some of the messaging and rhetoric from her agenda-setting Downing Street speech in 2016. Her conference speech was undoubtedly a strong finish but the work has to be followed up on in coming weeks if this approach is going to hit home with the voters…
And the PM herself?
She ended her conference in a much stronger position than she started, having given what is considered to be the best speech of her premiership. Following a barnstorming speech from her Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox – channelling a mixture of Brian Blessed, Tom Baker and Noel Coward – many would have feared she would not be able to match the warm-up act. In the end, she made an immediate impact; not least dancing onto the stage to the tune of Dancing Queen (charmingly self-deprecating or, cringe-worthingly embarrassing depending on your taste), cracked some decent jokes, and announced some impactful policy changes (as per above). She then set about deliberately not mentioning Chequers. This was an indication she was not for turning and yet still managed to be cheered by the party faithful, who had been expected to tear her apart with discontent on the Brexit negotiations (from all sides of the debate).
The PM has obviously learned lessons from her last conference speech. The past year has seen some severe setbacks to her premiership, from Cabinet resignations to open talk of removing her from the top seat. May’s speech was a deliberate and seemingly effective salve to a troubled leadership. This momentum will have to be carried on, energetically, in the run up to March year.