Conservative Party Conference began today and it looks set to be a tough time for Theresa May, her plans for Brexit and the Conservative Party generally. It follows a Labour Conference that many commentators saw as the best for some years – no threat to Corbyn’s leadership, punch-ups relatively limited in nature and speeches from Corbyn, McDonnell and Thornberry well-received.
Yes, all the defiant Palestinian flag-waving was greeted with raised eyebrows across the board. And yes, there were billions of pounds in unfunded spending commitments. But, overall, Labour seemed to have assembled a narrative of ‘common sense’ change to the current political system which many voters will find appealing. Its innate left-wing populism went down a treat.
That is in large part because the Conservatives have failed to put together a comparative cohesive vision themselves. It hasn’t been the case since Theresa May took office in 2016 and gave her victory speech outside Downing Street, full of promises to focus her efforts on those people who were struggling to get by. That is arguably the last time the Tories convincingly managed to deliver an optimistic narrative. At that point, the PM was making herself the candidate for change and voters were keen to see how she did. It felt as though she had palpable momentum.
Fast-forward two years: a mishandled general election, a lost majority and the Government is bogged down by Brexit. The PM herself has somehow managed to lose control of domestic policy – where is that optimistic set of policies about changing people’s lives in keeping with her Downing Street speech? With all her time taken up defending the Chequers approach to Brexit and trying to hold a fractious party together, her domestic policy agenda has been subsumed. She is no longer the candidate of change; instead, she has become one of stubborn reaction and defence.
So, over the next few days the Party will be trying to do three things. And all eyes will be on her and the conference.
Firstly – not kill itself over Brexit. Of course, the PM’s Brexit position looks unsustainable with MPs on the Left and the Right of the Conservatives saying it cannot work. There are numerous complicated fringes on the subject – with a major speech from Boris Johnson ‘helpfully’ slotted into the fringe agenda. Given Tory grassroot opinion favours Brexit, ‘hard’ or ‘no deal’ if need be, will activists openly revolt by putting more pressure on the PM? Or will they allow her time?
Secondly – the Conservatives urgently need to show that it has workable policies on the domestic agenda. Housing will be to the fore – and the number of fringe meetings on that and related subjects is interesting – but can an optimistic, workable vision of the market economy be projected to take on Corbyn and McDonnell’s rampant re-nationalisation programme? And what will be said about the future of public services? Can the PM make a case for pragmatic conservatism to trump populist left-wing offerings?
Thirdly – the PM herself needs to show she is in control again. Evidence of this is needed. Donald Tusk and Juncker’s dismissive attitude to her following the recent EU summit may actually have helped her anyway – many Tory members feel protective of her and she needs to capitalise on that this week. Nervous coughing fits and letters not falling off the stage will help, but at the end of the day it will be her speech, her delivery and whether she looks calm and sounds like she has a plan that will determine how much breathing space to deliver. The pressure on May and her team will be enormous.
And that is because, in the background, there will be leadership challenges being mounted by her rivals. Some will be open and bullish – Johnson the case in point – others quiet and built around loyalty – Javid and Hunt in particular will not want to look like they are jumping the gun. There will be many other lesser known names who will quietly be sounding out levels of likely support should the PM resign or be forced out anytime in the next six months or so. Some may surprise you and some others won’t.
Nudge Factory will be posting a short blog at the end of each day during Conference to update you on how these main points are being met…or not.