After an otherwise drab and lacklustre conference, expectations were sky high for Theresa May’s closing speech to the party faithful in Manchester. With continued questions over her leadership, cabinet divisions over Brexit and the jockeying of position amongst her would-be successors, her set-piece to the Tory faithful was an opportunity, some might say even her last opportunity, to reassert her authority over her party and to convince her detractors.
A prankster and coughing fit understandably eclipsed most analysis of the content of the speech, but it is worth examining closer what the Prime Minister had to say.
The Prime Minister began by seeking to draw a line under the loss of her parliamentary majority and apologising, to sympathetic applause from the assembled delegates. There followed an unashamed defence of capitalism and free markets, and a promise to take the fight to Jeremy Corbyn and his dangerous socialist experiment. But what soon materialised was a string of policy announcements which sat uneasily with her earlier defence of capitalism. In fact, it seemed the Prime Minister was at pains to imitate the policy prescriptions of the Labour leader – from lifting the loan repayment threshold for student tuition fees, to introducing an energy price cap with the publication of a green paper next week. When Ed Miliband proposed a similar energy price freeze in 2013 he was ruthlessly savaged by the Conservatives. There was even an announcement on changing the organ donation register to an “opt out system” rather than an opt in system - an idea announced by Jeremy Corbyn in Brighton last week and first mooted by the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff.
There is no escaping that the public policy agenda is being dictated by Labour, with the Conservatives not only forced to play catch-up but also to concede a number of arguments to Labour. And here, crucially, lies the challenge for the Conservatives. They are being sucked into policy areas where they simply cannot “out-Labour” the Labour party, often resulting in a pale imitation of the “real deal”. Who wants “Labour-light” when they can have “full-fat”?
The mission statement set out by Theresa May when she first became Prime Minister remains, however, as relevant as ever. But as delegates left Manchester, many will have concluded that this week’s conference was a missed opportunity for the Conservative party to seize the political agenda from Labour and convince a sceptical electorate that it will genuinely make Britain a country that works for everyone. The empty, often confusing slogans (when they were not falling down behind her!), laid bare the party’s biggest challenge – the Conservatives are still searching for a credible and compelling narrative.
As if that wasn’t difficult enough, the Conservative party decided this week to pick a fight with one of its important constituents – the business community. Business groups, led by the CBI, quickly rounded on the Conservatives, questioning the party’s support for free markets and expressing incredulity at plans for an energy price cap – first mooted by Ed Miliband in 2013.
Having alienated key allies in business, the Chancellor’s budget in November will now assume even greater importance as the Government seeks to regain the upper hand in the economic debate.
If this must have ranked as the PM’s longest week in politics, the going is about to get a whole lot tougher for the Prime Minster. With OBR forecasts projecting detreating public finances, and Brexit talks about to come to ahead in Brussels, it seems only a matter of time before the Cabinet’s fragile Brexit truce unravels.
The chaotic end to a conference marred by cabinet divisions and leadership manoeuvres will renew speculation about the Prime Minister’s future. At the time of writing, some give the beleaguered Prime Minister as much as days. Others, buoyed by the sheer grit and determination demonstrated to complete her speech, in what must have been the most trying of circumstances, will be confident the Prime Minister will have won many detractors over and demonstrated her political mettle. One thing is certain; we are none the wiser who her successor will be.
Whilst the Foreign Secretary lapped up the adulation of the tory faithful in the conference hall, his stock has never been lower with the parliamentary party. His calculation must surely be that his own detractors in parliament will not dare to keep the darling of the grassroots from making the final run-off. Other names to have emerged this week as potential dark horses for the top-job include Tom Tugendhat, James Cleverly and George Freeman – who was brimming with ideas in the Conference fringe. The greatest service the Prime Minister could do, much as Michael Howard achieved in 2005, would be to promote her would be successors to key ministerial posts, and to orchestrate the ensuing beauty parade. But after a difficult Conference, it remains to be seen whether the Prime Minister has the political capital to re-jig her lineup and to pick a fight with her Cabinet.