Theresa May styled her speech to the 2017 Conservative Party Conference as creating “the British Dream”. However, in a disjointed speech (partly due to factors outside the Prime Minister’s control), there were occasions when the dream resembled more of a nightmare for May and her deflated Party. However, while media attention will largely focus on the prankster who handed the PM a P45, as well as May’s faltering voice and set design malfunctions, the speech did contain some interesting policy announcements which should not be drowned out.
For May’s loyal supporters, her struggles on the Conference stage may assist with her being seen as more human and relatable, in contrast to the unsympathetic presidential figure who launched her election campaign. Despite poor jokes, coughing fits and awkward delivery, the Conservative Party finally got to see their leader as a human being. Conversely, those Parliamentary colleagues who have a less charitable view of the Prime Minister will see this as a further example of a Prime Minister who is desperately struggling to keep her administration afloat in challenging times.
Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, the speech will be remembered more for presentational difficulties rather than some clear policy announcements designed to position the Conservatives as a Party committed to addressing injustice. These announcements included a firm commitment to introduce legislation on an energy price cap as soon as Parliament returns from its current recess and a £2billion investment in social housing. It is an interesting contradiction that while the Prime Minister echoed the robust defence of free market economics expounded by the Chancellor in his speech, the policy announcements were of an interventionist nature which have echoes of Ed Miliband’s pro-consumer agenda. By resurrecting such policies, there is evidence that the influence of the laissez faire free marketeers in the Cabinet may be diminished.
In focussing on housing and energy costs, the Conservatives are attempting to appeal to younger voters and those who had been so readily willing to accept the Corbynite mantra of the market being rigged against their interests. For a Conservative Government to enthusiastically prioritise the construction of new social housing does demonstrate just how exposed the Party is on housing, especially in the grisly aftermath of Grenfell Tower. However, critics will no doubt claim that the provision announced of 5,000 new social homes per year for five years, will do little to address the chronic capacity issues in the UK’s housing market especially when contrasted with Labour’s commitment to build a million new homes. In addition, May confirmed the review of university funding and student financing that was briefed to the newspapers over the weekend, along with a freeze in the cap on tuition fees at £9,250 and a higher earnings repayment threshold of £25,000. This is the second policy aimed at attracting young people, after under-30s voted for Labour in their droves at the 8 June election. However, there is a danger that such policies do not resemble sufficiently bold or decisive action to turn around the Party’s fortunes with younger people and can be easily dismissed as merely tinkering around the edges of the problem.
The speech was light on further Brexit detail which was to be expected as last month’s much trailed Florence speech was designed to allow the Prime Minister to largely focus on the domestic agenda over the course of the Conference. The Prime Minister spoke with genuine passion about examples of perceived injustice which she claimed are the reasons she is in politics. The speech dealt largely with domestic matters where the Party is most vulnerable to Jeremy Corbyn’s surge.
In acknowledging her role in calling an election that allowed Labour to represent a change agenda and portray the Conservative Party as a lame duck government of continuity, the Prime Minister was open and honest, apologising to delegates for a highly flawed campaign. No political leader in recent memory has so readily eaten humble pie. However, the Conservative Party is now tasked with reinventing and renewing its policy platform while in Government which is a very tall order. There was minimal evidence from this speech that May has the creativity to oversee this transformation.
The Prime Minister ended her speech with a plea for unity and called on her party to “shape up”, saying most people paid little attention to gossip in the corridors of Westminster and just wanted politicians to focus on protecting the jobs of working people. At a superficial level at least, the Party grassroots presented a united front and willed their damaged Leader to carry on despite her travails. However, in the cold light of day, this speech will do little to reassure those MPs who privately are concerned about the Prime Minister’s performance and may embolden those who seek to wrestle the crown away from her, possibly sooner rather than later.