Divided and tired Tories must look to a new generation
Today’s speech in Manchester was always going to have a big impact on how long the Prime Minister might stay in office. There is little doubt that she may have hastened her demise as Conservative leader, following a chaotic address in Manchester.
The Prime Minister was struck down by a disabling cough that threatened to prevent her completing her speech. She had already been disrupted by a comedian invader who breached security to hand her a P45 while she stood at the lectern. Towards the end of her speech, lettering began to fall off the conference set behind her. It was excruciating to watch and seemed to signal her political disintegration.
The Conservative Party must surely now look to a new generation to bring about some semblance of unity and shore up its electoral prospects. Many other Cabinet ministers were underwhelmed, with Boris Johnson having a particularly divisive conference. He has strong support from sections of the Party membership, but the gaffes and his questionable loyalty has left him a diminished figure amongst a number of MPs this week.
Even without the intrusion and the coughing, the PM faced a difficult task. Shorn of normal prime ministerial authority by the failed election, forced to tolerate constant manoeuvring and positioning by her cabinet colleagues, and knowing that the most likely outcome is being allowed to see through an imperfect Brexit before being replaced, she searched for an agenda to unite the party.
Her central theme was the ‘British dream’, a much recycled political phrase that was most recently deployed by Ed Miliband in 2014. Today that dream involves Britain leaving the European Union. The Prime Minister restated that that will happen in March 2019 and that the country must be prepared for all eventualities including no deal. But Mrs May did not wish to dwell on Brexit.
It is the fissure that runs through her cabinet and the wider Conservative Party. Instead she sought to focus on her domestic agenda and the ambition of ‘building a country that works for everyone’.
But with no parliamentary majority, little non-Brexit parliamentary time and an unwillingness to propose legislation which needs Labour assent, the Prime Minister had little in the way of concrete policy to populate her dream.
The central announcement was a pledge to increase the construction of council housing as part of a package aimed at ‘fixing Britain’s broken housing market’. The shift in housing policy under May’s government has focused much more on Government subsidy for affordable housing and the £2 billion extension of this programme will be welcome but there is a risk this policy has been oversold by Downing Street with some critics pointing out the relatively small scale.
There was also the promise of a draft bill to cap energy prices, another line that echoed back to Mr Miliband. The problem for the government is that all of these announcements, on housing, energy prices and other issues such as tuition fees, are in danger of looking like a pale imitation of Labour.
As such, it is not enough to change political momentum. As Mrs May croaked her way to the end of the speech, there was a palpable sense that her time could be up. The internal Tory cross-fire that has been evident on the conference platform all week has been extraordinary. Once that level of ill-discipline breaks out within a political party it is very hard to contain.
New leadership is essential to restore order and direction. If Mrs May is given the time to conduct a reshuffle she will need to use it to promote some of the younger generation who might be able to succeed her and rejuvenate the party. But whoever leads the Conservatives faces the extremely challenging task of holding the party together under the pressures created by Brexit.
To date the Prime Minister has just about managed to keep the show on the road, in part by pursuing what David Davis calls a policy of ‘constructive ambiguity’. But as the Article 50 clock ticks down and political choices begin to crystallise, the government will soon come to a fork in the road at which point splits become unavoidable. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s popularity on the conference fringe highlights that tension over Brexit cannot be neatly side-lined.
The one piece of glue that still binds all Tories together is Jeremy Corbyn, and the strength of partisanship demonstrated by Conservative ministers at conference receptions in Manchester emphasises how seriously they now take the Labour threat.
We can expect sharper attacks on the Labour leadership, particularly Corbyn’s economic prospectus. This will place pressure on business, but whether this looks like a calculated decision or a panicked response will need to play itself out.
For now, questions about May’s future will rumble on. But the Labour Party is strangely her saviour. The thought of Jeremy Corbyn entering No. 10 is the one factor that prevents a total Conservative meltdown and an early election.