Tories take centre stage
Tories take centre stage
A lot can change in a year. Only 12 months ago delegates at the Conservative Party Conference gave a hero’s welcome to the man who had delivered the party’s first outright election victory in 23 years. This year that man will stay at home – no longer Prime Minister, no longer even an MP - and instead the hero’s welcome will go to a woman, the party’s second female leader and the country’s new Prime Minister.
Allow me to introduce myself
May is well known to the party faithful, joining in her teens, and touring the local association dinner circuit to endear herself to members. But a non-existent leadership race and a fairly quiet summer period means the new Prime Minister will have to ‘introduce’ herself to her party and the country during her speech next week.
Those watching the traditional keynote speech on Wednesday will be looking for clues as to what it means to be a ‘Mayite’. The Prime Minister’s tenure began with a land grab from Labour with pledges on reforming capitalism and a return to a more socially just and meritocratic society. The re-introduction of selection in schools however also signalled a move towards the more traditional right wing of the party. It is this apparent contradiction that most intrigues political observers who will be interested to see how May knits together her appeal to the centre ground while potentially shifting policy, such as on grammar schools, to the right. The answer may be simpler however; that in the face of a weak and divided opposition the Prime Minister simply has the ability to pick and choose her policies as she pleases.
When will Brexit mean Brexit?
While May will be keen to show off the breadth of ambitions for the country, only one subject is likely to dominate Conservative Party Conference this year – and the next, and the next, and the next – and that is the issue of Brexit.
We know that Brexit means Brexit, but what nobody knows is what Brexit actually means and so the party will open its conference discussing its favourite subject, Europe.
In typical May style – with three Ministers chomping at the bit to set out their stall on Brexit first – she has decided to lead the discussion herself, opening the conference on the issue ahead of speeches by Boris Johnson, David Davis and Priti Patel.
Traditionally, the opening speech by a Prime Minister at conference is one to motivate the troops and talk down the opposition. At this conference however, May and three Brexiteer cabinet ministers will tackle the Government’s most pressing issue head on; in a session entitled “Global Britain: Making a success of Brexit”.
May has remained tight-lipped on the subject so far giving away few details about her negotiation strategy or time frame so observers will be hoping she will use this opportunity to give some detail on how the UK’s Brexit strategy is shaping up, and her plans to trigger Article 50.
One thing we know from experience is that Tory conferences dominated by Europe are unlikely to go as planned. While main stage speeches will portray the sanitised version of the Brexit debate, a cursory glance at the fringe listings for this conference reveals the plethora of opportunities for things to go off-message.
Numerous events looking at what post-Brexit Britain means for individual sectors will give journalists plenty of blue-on-blue action. Just yesterday Conservative Party grandee and ardent Europhile Ken Clarke criticised the Prime Minister for a lack of clarity over Brexit and presiding over a ‘Government with no policies’, while former Cabinet Minister Nicky Morgan has taken to the airwaves to slam the ‘dithering’ over the Brexit process.
A return to Birmingham
A city with a history of industry seems the appropriate place for the Prime Minister to set out her stall on rebalancing the economy away from London. Her key adviser Nick Timothy was born in the city, and his views on an industrial strategy are well known. Birmingham is arguably the only Metro Mayor region which the Conservatives can claim a strong chance of winning. Former John Lewis Managing Director Andy Street has recently been confirmed as their candidate, these factors combine to make the area of great importance to the new Prime Minister.
May’s plans to ‘reform capitalism’ have only received a lukewarm reaction at best when they were first mooted over the summer. With it likely that May will flesh out her plans to put workers on boards and to curb executive pay over the conference period, businesses are concerned that at a time of increasing economic uncertainty an upheaval of corporate governance structures would do more harm than good.
In another indication that May will not be dictated to by businesses, May has also told colleagues she was unimpressed with the lobbying of Wall Street bankers when she visited New York last week, in their efforts to help the UK retain access to the single market. Access to the single market is looking increasingly difficult to deliver, given recent reports that the Government are more set on giving up the UK’s obligations under the freedom of movement principle. This is now increasingly viewed as a red line across Whitehall. This move is indicative of the powerplays of the different ministries at play, with the Treasury seeking to advocate a soft Brexit, while some of May’s pro-Leave Cabinet members arguing for a clean break. Although the Treasury remains an key department in the negotiations, its influence under pressure since its once powerful position under George Osborne. All eyes may be tuned to May’s Brexit cabinet cavillers, but keeping a keen eye on the Chancellor’s positioning in his speech will be as important.