Conservative Party Conference: Day Two

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has come out fighting for the Prime Minister, amidst increasing pressure over the EU exit deal, or no deal as the case may be…

Dominic Raab, the charming but unyielding advocate of Brexit, today took to the stage at conference to defend his boss, Theresa May. Filling the recently vacated shoes of David Davis, Raab did it with gusto. He’s delivered in a deliberately headline-grabbing way which says openly to the EU: get serious, guys, and stop disrespecting us.

This begs the question: Who was his audience really?

Is this just a small serving of red meat for Tory Party Conference? Or an indication of serious intent on a much tougher approach to negotiations with Brussels? The next few days will tell.

What we do know is that Raab’s speech today is clearly a very stage-managed piece of conference oratory, designed to support a Prime Minister who is interpreted as being wounded, vulnerable and increasingly beleaguered. It looks like it’s about being tough, or, more importantly, being seen to be tough. The next 48 hours will see if this strategy can work and regardless of support from colleagues like Raab, it will ultimately be down to May to save her position and rebuild faith in the Tory ranks (at all levels).

As an important set-piece, Raab’s speech was peppered with careful language about bullying, disrespect and a frank admission that Britain’s deal with the EU isn’t going to be perfect. It is clear he is attempting to straddle both sides of the internal quarrel the Tories seem to constantly occupy – with a unifying objective – uncomfortably coupled with a commitment to honour the referendum result. The Tories’ atmospheric need for this is elevated by the much-anticipated speech at the fringes from Boris Johnson. Having been widely reported as not ruling out a leadership bid, all eyes will be on him. If done well, Johnson will likely cast a shadow over the low-energy repair work on the Chequers deal saga that seems to be floundering.

What we can also take from the Brexit Secretary’s speech is that there’s a detectable softening of mood music for the prospect of a ‘no deal’ scenario. It’s likely he has done that to prepare people on both sides of the argument, naturally some delighted, some appalled and some not that bothered because they want to deliver the referendum result in the least painful manner to focus on the economy. Of course, Raab’s audience is not just the party delegates, the commentariat and the British media – he’s also talking directly to Brussels. This is because he knows that the EU’s leadership pays very strong attention to the Conservative Party Conference, and has done so for many years.

Anyone from the Tories in Birmingham will tell you the mood at the bars, restaurants and fringe events is that Brexit negotiations aren’t going well. Even though it is only Monday, conference shows the Conservatives are still very split: Remainers are hacked off, and Leavers likewise; only the May-supporting pragmatists and die-hard loyalists seem to be steadfast. There is a feeling among delegates that Labour is on a war-footing given Corbyn’s leader speech last week, together with the confidence he expressed it with.

Following that diagnosis there is a hunger from members to see the Government get to grips and crack on with the job. Big time. There’s a feeling that a very strong rallying call is needed.

We’ll keep an eye on what’s going on in Birmingham and the ongoing flavour of Tory membership opinion. The stakes continue to be very high as the clock ticks towards March next year.

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