The Darling Buds of May

This week has extended the Prime Minister’s honeymoon; post- Conference difficult decisions await

Party conferences normally follow a pattern: a post-election triumphant event where the new Government presents itself and its programme to party members and the public followed by a lull for a few years before another big rallying event before an election.

Even though we are now a year and a half into the new parliament, this year’s conference in Birmingham had the feeling of an immediate post-election conference. We have a new Prime Minister and a new Cabinet team, with fringe events bursting to the seams as members and stakeholders try and learn what the priorities of the new team of Ministers might be.

With the Labour Party seemingly intent on self-immolation, the Conservatives have a feeling of unchallenged dominance which the party hasn’t felt for decades.  The majority of party members are excited by the fact that the Prime Minister has firmly pledged to take the UK out of the EU and the opportunities that a globally focused Britain could seize. Even cautious and experienced Ministers believe that Labour aren’t likely to be serious challengers at the next general election and they can begin to plan for a time in Government longer than the current parliament.

There was an expectation that the Prime Minister would have to begin to set out in detail what the UK’s negotiating position will be with the EU. Despite worries of the economic impact of uncertainty, clarity about March next year as the date of triggering Article 50 seems to have quelled the demand within the Party for the Prime Minister to be more explicit about her plans.

While the clear direction of travel seems to be towards a harder or more complete Brexit, this week’s conference has provided little clarity on the Government’s real position. For example, the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox told one fringe event that his vision was for the UK to escape from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Despite the fact that the court is a key plank of EU single market, he refused to confirm if the establishment of his department and his desire for the UK to strike free trade agreements across the globe meant that the UK would leave the customs union or the single market.

While the political climate means that the Government might have time on its hands, the economic climate looks increasingly unsettled. Continued uncertainty about the UK’s position post-Brexit is likely to begin to impact on investment decisions.  Business that believed that Brexit wouldn’t happen and then that Brexit would be softer rather than harder are beginning to wake up to the fact that the UK faces a difficult and protracted period of uncertainty.

This presents opportunities as well as challenges and business and other organisations helping the Government to engage with the detail will be important in delivering success.  At last night’s Weber Shandwick Conference Dinner, David Lidington, the Leader of the House of Commons, highlighted the Government’s desire to work with all those who will be impacted both by the UK’s exit-deal from the EU and the Government’s ambitious programme for domestic reform.

The Conservative Government faces huge challenges and opportunities over the next few years. For Ministers returning from Birmingham to Whitehall, the long and difficult process of making the most of Brexit begins.  While this will inevitably mean making compromises and unpopular decisions, the hope is that the Government has enough political capital to make a success of it.