Theresa May will be breathing a sigh of relief as she leaves Birmingham this afternoon. There was no repeat of the comedy of errors that beset her conference speech in Manchester 12 months ago. The set remained in place, no one handed her a P45, her voice held out, and the sky did not fall in.
A more cynical observer might suggest that the Prime Minister benefitted from the relatively low expectations that accompany her set piece appearances. But it was a well-structured, detailed speech, which was delivered with some gusto.
Dancing onto the stage to Abba might just have been a masterstroke, not least as it’s probably the last thing anybody expected to see, apparently including her closest advisers. It helped diffuse the tense build up and injected an uncharacteristic sense of humour into proceedings.
As promised in the media pre briefing, the speech set out a positive if implausible vision for post Brexit Britain. It is a vision which – whatever your views on the outcome of the 2016 referendum – has been noticeably absent in political discourse in the intervening period.
There was also a vigorous but not panicked attack on the agenda of an incoming Labour Government, together with an acknowledgement that the age of austerity might be coming to a close.
Her ruling out a ‘People’s Vote’ and repeating the line that we’ve already had one does not come as a surprise, but inevitably limits the Prime Minister’s room for manoeuvre in the period between now and March.
Can one well-executed speech revive a Premiership? Probably not. If a form of ‘her’ deal does not pass the House of Commons by the end of March, her term in Number 10 will be over. And if a form of ‘her’ deal does pass the House of Commons by March, there is a pretty good chance she will move on shortly afterwards.
As throughout the conference, Boris Johnson loomed large over the speech, the knowledge that a repeat of last year would have given his hopes of entering Number 10 a boost. But for him it was not to be. As Sophy Ridge told MHP clients and guests in our lounge at conference – ‘peak Boris’ has probably passed.
Overall, we leave Birmingham feeling somewhat flat and perhaps with a sense that the annual ritual of Autumn’s party conferences could and should be coming to an end.
Before the rolling news cycle and constant online reporting, these events felt important, defining set piece events at which Prime Ministers or would be Prime Ministers could make their pitch to the country.
In 2018, despite the breathless debates about Brexit to be found on the fringe and in the bars this week, who outside the bubble is really listening, particularly at this point in the electoral cycle.
Although there were apparently more activists in attendance than in previous years, it was also evident that many of the business representatives who were out in force on Monday evening, had departed by Tuesday lunchtime.
And whilst the Conservative conference has never enjoyed the same status as the Liberal Democrats and Labour as a policy making forum, the lack of radical long-term policy discussion was striking, despite the presence of the newer think tanks such as Freer and Onward.
If it was about going through the motions and enduring conference week, May will be pleased with a few days well spent. The wider impact, however, is likely to be extremely limited.
Pete Digger, Managing Director