What a difference a week makes. After the buzz and raucous nature of the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, the mood music in Manchester at the Conservative Party Conference couldn’t be any more different. The atmosphere was flat and in stark contrast to that which delegates enjoyed in the city only 2 years ago. It was the manifestation of where the party is – bereft of ideas, stale, a government and a leader still licking their wounds and trying to put the horror of the election campaign behind them.
By all accounts, the conference started well, with Ruth Davidson once again impressing and begging the question, when will she stand for a Westminster seat and provide the energy and enthusiasm the party is desperate for? On Sunday, government plans to freeze tuition fees and invest more into Help to Buy schemes were trumpeted as a considered reaction to the election result, an exercise of the government listening to the concerns of young voters. But at conference and more broadly, it wasn’t met with fanfare and sudden appreciation that the party had understood the need of the young. Rather, it seemed a knee-jerk reaction and smacked of desperation with no one fooled and led to criticism that the party still doesn’t get it.
What followed on Monday was more of the same tired speeches from members of the Cabinet. Short on substance and policy announcements, and more a platform to deliver a message of why the Conservative Party is still relevant and how it is more important than ever to communicate to the electorate the benefits of free market capitalism, and the dangers of socialism.
It took until Tuesday, for the sense of optimism to reach the auditorium. Dr Liam Fox, Sir Michael Fallon, Priti Patel, David Davis all took to the stage to reassure members of the opportunities that Brexit has brought, and provide a vision of a Global Britain. Priti Patel was perhaps the most surprising of all, using her speech as an opportunity to emphasise the work she has done in DFID and being received positively by the audience. In truth though, all of these speeches were merely the warm-up act for the most anticipated speech of conference by the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. While well received and worthy of a standing ovation, many (mainly the media) were left disappointed that there wasn’t anything controversial. He backed the Prime Minister and wanted to ‘let the British lion roar’. Far from the resignation speech that the press had anticipated, it was a speech that lacked substance and barely touched upon his ministerial portfolio; instead it appeared more like a stand-up routine to gee the conference crowd and cheer everyone up from their election hangover.
So it ended with Theresa May saying sorry to the party faithful for the shambolic election campaign. Despite the coughs and croaking voice, May attempted to use the speech to unite the party once again and push forward with her vision for Britain, determined to fight injustice. She would have wanted people to remember the speech and would have hoped to reset the public perception of her as a woman diligently doing her duty, getting on with the job. Instead, it will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. A prankster (this time not Boris) stealing the limelight, and a stage falling to pieces.
In an effort to rally a flagging Parliamentary party after a troubled conference and further disquiet from Brexiteers and backbench rebels, May has resorted to inviting vocal opponents within the party including Sarah Wollaston, Johnny Mercer and Heidi Allen to Downing Street to prevent an embarrassing defeat in a vote on Universal Credit. To save face, Conservative MPs ended up abstaining altogether. May has also been pleading with European leaders and playing on her weak domestic position. It seems to have worked, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisting progress in being made despite reports to the contrary in the British press.
May walks away from Brussels with the EU 27 giving the green light to internal preparations for the second phase of Brexit talks. Number 10 will say this is significant progress, but we are still six months on from triggering Article 50, so further progress must be made before Christmas. The champagne will have to stay on ice, but Merkel and other European leaders have given May a lifeline. She needs to use it wisely – her future and that of the party is at stake.
Policy announcements at Conservative Party conference
- Health: An independent review of mental health provision – Professor Sir Simon Wessely is to review the Mental Health Act with a view to updating the law.
- Housing: £2bn to be made available for construction of council and social housing, £10bn to extend Help to Buy and more protection to tenants renting in the private sector, and new incentives for landlords who offer longer term tenancies of at least 12 months.
- Energy: Fulfilling a manifesto promise to cap energy bills.
- Education: Review of student university fees and loans and a freeze in the cap on tuition fees at £9,250 and a higher earnings repayment threshold of £25,000. There will also be an introduction of a student loan reimbursement programme for science and foreign language teachers and new style bursaries in maths will also be piloted. £30 million will also be offered to schools that struggle most with recruitment and retention of teachers.
- Transport: £400m for transport links in the North.