The Conservative bandwagon rolls into Birmingham next week for its annual party conference, seemingly incapable of escaping the one issue that has dominated Theresa May’s premiership thus far. It always seems to be about Brexit.
Unlike the Labour model, which sees conference as a policy making body, Conservative Party Conference is usually an opportunity for the hierarchy to give a bit of spit and polish to the party image, shining light on specific topics which the government want to focus on. This government is afforded no such luck as one topic remains set to dominate the headlines once again.
As much as the Prime Minister has sought to display unity amongst her cabinet in recent weeks regarding the Chequers position as the Brexit negotiations reach a head, the last twelve months have been a particularly bruising time for Theresa May. With a number of prominent Cabinet Ministers resigning before the summer recess in opposition to Downing Street’s preferred exit strategy, it would be misguided to view the Conservative’s position as anything resembling a united front with the departure date being less than six months away.
May has consistently said that she remains committed to taking the Conservative Party into the next general election. Indeed her conference keynote speech this year carries the rather loaded title of ‘Campaign 2022’. This would seem a rather ambitious stance as her performance to date is dissected and the merits of potential leadership contenders are discussed at the bars across Birmingham. Speeches delivered at the conference hall and at the supporting fringes will be scrutinised for any hint of leadership ambition, relevant or otherwise.
As with all conference seasons, policy announcements will therefore be at a premium in the ICC in order to show a greater degree of domestic focus from the Prime Minister and her cabinet colleagues. A lot of chatter in recent weeks has called for the Party to dispel the view that they are not just the delivers of Brexit, but that thought is being given to a broad vision of domestic policies with which to engage the electorate.
The Government is increasingly aware that beyond Brexit its domestic agenda – which at times has appeared neglected – will play an integral role in shaping the Conservative’s electoral chances. Ministers will therefore be encouraged to look for opportunities to demonstrate that the Party has plans which don’t focus on Brussels.
Following a glut of housing announcements in recent months and the view within Downing Street that delivering on housing promises is key to taking back voters who turned to Labour last year, the UK’s housing landscape will be sure to be a key talking point for when Tory ministers take to the stage this autumn.
Housing Secretary James Brokenshire has also indicated he will use his time at conference as a way to reach out to local leaders who are calling for a consultation on post-Brexit regional funding, as the Party look to convince council chiefs of a strong and stable future for local communities in 2019 and beyond.
Traditional Tory weak spots such as health and social care are also likely to find more attention following the Prime Minister’s announcement of an extra £20bn a year for the NHS in June this year – further clarity will no doubt be given on this.
But it really does all revolve around Brexit. If any further proof of this was needed, this year will see the first ‘Alternative Party Conference’, organised by a number of prominent Tory Brexiteers, as an alternative version to Party Conference which they said is no longer ‘truly Conservative’.
The Prime Minister has talked tough since returning from Salzburg, no doubt intended to give her some breathing space in Birmingham. But its hard to escape the notion that the Party remains roughly where it was a year ago, with little to show since Manchester other than a continuation of infighting and a lack of cohesion amongst the party ranks as to the direction of travel post-March 2019.
Yet with Brexit looming – when the conference starts it will be just 180 days away – and given the position Labour finds itself in as part of its own Brexit-related mess and top table squabbling, there’s an argument that the Prime Minister will be able to plough on with her plans for leaving the EU regardless. This is despite the reported 80 Tories willing to vote against the Government if May sticks with her Chequers Brexit plan, which could potentially trigger an election ballot at any time.
Team Theresa will be hoping that conference season will represent a chance to pull support together behind her latest plan, whilst using the threat of the devastation brought by a no-deal Brexit as a stick to bring some discipline to her backbenchers. Whether that will be possible or not is unclear. Very little of May’s premiership has indicated she is willing or able to reach out and compromise with her critics, either internal or external.
It remains to be seen whether Tory activists have the confidence in her to deliver not only the Brexit that they want, but also to carry them into a general election campaign in the future.